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International aid agencies Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have hit back at allegations of bias in the distribution of aid in Arakan State.
Their statements come after a rally on Monday in state capital Sittwe where some 3,000 protestors called for the international agencies to be expelled from the region for allegedly offering “biased assistance” in terms of relief supplies to Rohingya Muslims as opposed to Arakanese Buddhists.
Some demonstrators carried placards which called for the closure of UN and MSF offices “within seven days” for “feeding Bengalis [Rohingyas]”.
“MSF regrets that some people in Rakhine [Arakan] do not seem to tolerate the provision of basic services to people who otherwise would have none,” said MSF Myanmar Head of Mission Peter-Paul de Groote. “We are humanitarian medical workers, working closely with the Myanmar Ministry of Health to deliver health care in Rakhine, as well as hundreds of thousands of people all over the country, including Shan and Kachin states, as well as Yangon and Thanintharyi regions.
“MSF is non-political – we are an independent medical humanitarian non-government organization that provides life-saving services to millions of people in 60 countries around the world that do not have access to health care. Our support for people in all of the countries we work in is solely based on medical need only, regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity or any other factor.”
Writing for the Myanmar Times in November, de Groote noted that MSF works in Arakan State at the request of the Burmese government, and that it provides healthcare to communities that the Ministry of Health finds difficult to reach.
“These challenges are largely a result of the intimidation and hostility that is directed towards their own staff, who are threatened when they try to provide services to Muslim patients,” he wrote.
The MSF head of mission in Burma also pointed out that Arakan is one of the poorest states in the country and that “rural communities in particular remain extremely impoverished, with increasing concerns over food insecurity due to the disruptions in agriculture, trade and the local economy.”
Similarly, OCHA’s Public Information and Advocacy Officer Pierre Peron told DVB: “Humanitarian workers are fully committed to assisting vulnerable people in need wherever they are found, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender or class.
“Community resistance against international organisations working in Rakhine State has increased in the past months. The rising anti-aid worker sentiment has created a difficult environment for humanitarian work and in some areas it is affecting the ability of international actors to provide assistance to both Rakhine and Muslim IDPs and vulnerable communities.
“Muslim IDPs are not the only ones who need help in Rakhine State: many ethnic Rakhine people are also extremely poor and suffer from the chronic under-development of Rakhine State: their needs are different, but equally important.
“Humanitarian and development agencies are working with all levels of government in Myanmar to ensure humanitarian and development assistance is delivered to all communities in need of assistance in Rakhine State.”
In addition to the closure of international relief agencies’ offices, protestors in Sittwe on Tuesday also called for non-citizen Rohingya Muslims to be denied voting rights, and for local police to be given powers to use deadly force in emergency situations.
Protest organiser Nyo Aye said the rally was staged with the approval of the local authorities, and that similar protests are planned for other towns in Arakan State, including Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Minbya and Maungdaw.