Food shortages loom as aid workers flee west Myanmar
April 2, 2014
Sittwe, Myanmar - Thousands of vulnerable people in strife-torn western Myanmar are close to running out of food and clean water, according to aid groups forced to flee the region after a wave of mob violence.
Many displaced people -- mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims -- living in bleak camps in Rakhine State are completely reliant on humanitarian deliveries, which have now stopped as a result of the unprecedented attacks on relief organisations.
"We are very concerned about the impact that this is having on humanitarian operations," said Pierre Peron, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"We are working day and night to find short term solutions to prevent people running out of food and water."
He said water stocks for roughly 18,000 people in two isolated camps in the township of Pauktaw were "critical", but added that efforts were being made to equip government boats to deliver fresh supplies.
Health services, particularly emergency medical referrals, have been "severely impacted", he said.
Aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was expelled from Rakhine last month ? a move that particularly affected Myanmar?s 800,000 Rohingya who are subject to harsh restrictions by the state which views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
- Risk of rising tensions -
Humanitarian workers fear they will be prevented from offering essential supplies and healthcare to more than 170,000 people in camps and remote villages around the Rakhine state capital Sittwe.
The looming shortages -- ahead of the monsoon season -- threaten to deepen the desperation of families forced to flee their homes following several outbreaks of deadly Buddhist-Muslim violence since 2012.
"Without food and water this could undoubtedly lead to increased tensions, not only between communities but within communities," said a foreign aid worker who did not want to be named.
International relief groups have come under mounting pressure from local Buddhists who accuse them of bias towards Muslims.
It is the first time that they have been forced to pull out from impoverished Rakhine en masse.
Their staff have faced threats and a concerted Buddhist nationalist campaign to stop local people cooperating with them.
The aid worker said lists had appeared on social media naming foreign organisations working in the state, detailing their employees and giving their home, office and warehouse addresses.
The names of local suppliers, landlords and drivers have also been circulated.
"We are in a situation that we expect that no one will rent us an office, no one will rent us a car, no one will sell us anything," said a second humanitarian worker who also asked to remain anonymous.
Boats used to deliver aid to some camps have been destroyed, removing a vital lifeline.
The impending start of the rainy season is also heightening concerns about the spread of disease.
- Running out of food -
Food shortages are already beginning to bite in the isolated camps, which hold some 140,000 displaced people, with locals reporting that the price of rice has doubled in recent days.
"We have had no rations for five, six days already and are facing trouble," said Thein Mya, 57, who lives in Thet Kae Pyin camp. "Is there some problem in town?"
The latest violence began last week when Buddhists accused an American aid worker of handling a Buddhist religious flag in a disrespectful manner.
Angry mobs later damaged and ransacked the offices, property and warehouses of international groups, causing dozens of aid workers to seek police protection.
An 11-year-old girl was accidentally shot as police fired warning rounds to try to disperse crowds.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called "for the protection of all civilians and the full respect for the rule of law," in a phone call with President Thein Sein on Sunday, the UN said.Tensions have been heightened by Myanmar's first census in three decades, which has stoked fury among Buddhists that it might lead to official recognition for the Rohingya.
An AFP journalist in the camps said the vast majority of Muslims there were not being counted in the tally, after the government said it would not register them if they called themselves Rohingya.