Burma's ethnic violence threatens aid workers

Muslim Rohingya children eat lunch in their tent at the Bawdupha Internally Displaced Persons camp on the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar's western Rakhine state, on November 2, 2012. Getty Images

BANGKOK, ThailandBurma's coastal Rakhine State is stricken with just the sort of mess certain international aid groups are designed to relieve.

Roiling conflict between the region's native Buddhists and a stateless Muslim ethnicity, the Rohingya, has brought on mob killings, torched villages, mass displacement and even bow-and-arrow wounds.

The remote state is cursed with poor public services. With tens of thousands now living in makeshift camps, malaria and tuberculosis outbreaks are worsening. Yet the international aid groups who flock towards such disaster zones -- Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations among them -- are encountering furious resistance from bands of local Buddhists.

Foreign aid to the Rohingya, who've reportedly suffered the brunt of the violence, is interpreted by some as lending aid and comfort to Islamic terrorists.

"In their view, even medical attention constitutes a kind of support," said Joe Belliveau, operations manager with Doctors Without Borders, the Switzerland-based group also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres.

A wave of death threats -- conveyed face-to-face, in pamphlets and on Facebook -- has convinced Doctors Without Borders to temporarily shrink its force of 300 or so down to a few dozen staffers. "Luckily, nobody has been the object of a direct attack. The threats are vague but strong enough to scare our staff ... and they tend to very clear in saying, 'Stop what you're doing.'"

The upshot: providing foreign aid to the estimated 28,000 people displaced by recent mob raids, perpetrated by both Muslims and Buddhists, is now deemed too hazardous in the region's most desperate zones. The international groups that remain in force, such as the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees office, or UNHCR, must travel with armed police or soldiers.

"It's tense," said Vivian Tan, a UNHCR information officer. "There are anti-UN, anti-NGO sentiments on the ground. For us to go anywhere, to assess the situation or provide relief, we need to be escorted by the authorities, police or soldiers. Staff are concerned for their safety, quite rightly."

Among certain factions of Rakhine Buddhists, hatred for the Rohingya runs so hot that almost any overture of sympathy towards the displaced Muslims causes hatred to spill over onto the sympathizer. In their eyes, the Rohingya are invaders run amok from neighboring Bangladesh. They are commonly described by their detractors as "black" or "cruel" or "devilish."

Burma denies citizenship to the estimated 800,000 Rohingya living within its borders. The UN has scoffed at Burma President Thein Sein's contention that they should be moved to UN camps in a "third country."

Offering citizenship to the Rohingya who've lived in Burma for generations would be a politically unpopular decision by the government. Few expect such a move: Thein Sein affirmed via his website that it would be "impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingya, who are not our ethnicity."

Contrast this sentiment to that of the UN, which asserts that the Rohingya are among the world's most persecuted minorities. Anti-Rohingya groups in two major Burma cities, Mandalay and Yangon, have marched in large, monk-led street rallies condemning UN intervention. There are also smaller protests against international interference, such as the one in the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, against a new Doctors Without Borders clinic. That rally, staged several weeks ago, halted the opening of a health facility in a largely Buddhist neighborhood.

"We'd been in intense discussions with the local community and had a high degree of buy in," Belliveau said. "Then, at the last minute, a small group demonstrated and threatened our staff ... This event was very confusing. We didn't realize [the extent] to which there are small groups determined to stop us from operating."

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