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NGOs summoned, told not to use word 'Rohingya'

Many of the NGOs operating in Myanmar's Rakhine state that Channel NewsAsia spoke to declined to be identified but they said that the situation is toxic.

Rohingya children at the Bawdupha camp in Myanmar. (Photo: AFP/Soe Than Win)

By May Wong
November 18, 2014

YANGON: Emotions are once again running high in Myanmar's western Rakhine state. The Rakhine chief minister and town elders have summoned the foreign NGOs and essentially advised them against using the word 'Rohingya'.

This comes hot on the heels of Myanmar government's sharp response last week when UN chief Ban Ki-moon used the term 'Rohingya' to describe the stateless Muslim people living in Rakhine. The government insists the term 'Rohingya' does not exist and instead refers to the group as Bengalis and illegal immigrants.

Many of the NGOs operating in Rakhine that Channel NewsAsia spoke to declined to be identified but they said that the situation is toxic and that it is really unnecessary, given that they are there to do a job - to provide much-needed humanitarian assistance.

Pierre Peron, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said: "What is important is that hundreds of thousands of people - very vulnerable people - in Rakhine state receive humanitarian assistance when they needed it. People need water, people need shelter, people need health, people need access to basic services. And that is really what is important. And we're going to continue to work to make sure that, that continues.

"The international community is working very closely with Myanmar authorities and at the same time, we're continuing our dialogue with community leaders and members of the community to ensure that we continue to communicate about what we do and why we do it, ensure full transparency on what humanitarian activities are happening."

Earlier this year Rakhine Buddhists attacked the foreign NGO offices, causing many to flee. The Buddhists accused the NGOs of favouring the Rohingyas. But now the NGOs have resumed their work and are operating at almost full capacity. Currently, they are not facing any threats to their safety.

"At the moment, there is no indication that the level of security has changed at all in Sittwe. We're not concerned and we have full confidence in the local authorities to ensure the safety and security of international humanitarian staff," said Peron.

Some foreign aid workers said temperatures are rising in Rakhine but they are hoping cool heads will prevail. Al-Haj Aye Lwin, chief convener and core member of the Religions for Peace Myanmar, said: "Those who are making noises are from the political arena, some radicals. Name doesn't matter. And they should not be that sensitive regarding that. That might be sending wrong signals to the donors and the would-be donors also.

"What we need to do is sit down decently, talk and share and exchange their views and try to patch up things through negotiations. For those at the grassroots level, we need to educate them so they won't be easily incited or instigated by those people who are trying to whip up their emotion."

Channel NewsAsia understands that some Rakhine Buddhists have planned a protest for Sunday (Nov 23) in Rakhine to demonstrate against UN chief Ban's comments on the Rohingyas. Many are hoping that once the locals air their grievances publicly, this matter will be put to rest.

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