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Red Cross president urges Burma to grant access to aid workers

Villagers from Namtu Township begin arriving at a Buddhist monastery to shelter from fighting between TNLA and RCSS/SSA in July 2016. (PHOTO: DVB)

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has asked Burma to let aid workers get access to people caught up in conflicts that have displaced tens of thousands despite a transition that brought Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to power.

Authorities have blocked the ICRC from areas under the control of ethnic minority forces and from visiting some prisoners, the organisation’s president, Peter Maurer, told reporters late on Wednesday in the commercial capital, Rangoon, officially known as Yangon.

“We would like to have access to all the people in need in order to do proper assessments, to help ease according to needs,” he said.

Maurer visited the northwestern state of Arakan, where he toured camps set up almost five years ago to house those displaced by communal clashes between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Arakanese Buddhists.

He did not visit the north of the state, where a security operation in response to insurgent attacks in October sent an estimated 74,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.

Troops and police have been accused of killing and raping Rohingyas, who are denied citizenship in Burma and widely viewed as interlopers from Bangladesh.

The government only recently allowed international aid workers to visit affected villages, under the condition that they are accompanied by government officials, the UN humanitarian agency said on 1 May.

A separate ICRC delegation visited detainees in the area last month.

Maurer was set to visit Kachin State in the north on Thursday, but the government denied a request to visit the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) stronghold of Laiza.

The ICRC is assisting a civilian hospital there, but staffers have not been able to visit since fighting between the KIA and government forces broke out eight months ago.

Maurer travels to the capital, Naypyidaw, on Friday to meet officials and will meet Suu Kyi in Beijing during an international conference there next week, he said.

Former political prisoner Suu Kyi won a landslide in elections before becoming the de facto head of the civilian administration in April 2016 after decades of military rule.

But her priority of securing peace with autonomy-seeking minority insurgents has been set back by fighting that has displaced an estimated 160,000 more people since the transition, according to UN data.

Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Maurer said access to conflict areas was “always a difficult equation of security considerations versus needs of people for assistance and protection,” but he was “unsatisfied” by the limits in place in Burma.

Granting more access was in the interests of the government and the armed forces, he said.

“At the end of the day there is no more effective tool to ease tensions than to offer fluid procedures for access to humanitarian organizations like us,” he said.