SITTWE (Myanmar) • Relief agencies striving to reach hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims displaced by strife in Myanmar are facing rising hostility from ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who accuse the United Nations and foreign aid groups of helping only Muslims.
So far, the Myanmar government has granted only Red Cross groups access to the area. The UN suspended its activities and evacuated non-critical staff after the government suggested that it had supported Rohingya insurgents.
Already battling bad weather, tough terrain and obstructive bureaucracy, the Red Cross also ran into an angry mob, who believed the foreign aid agencies had ignored the suffering of Rakhine Buddhists in Myanmar's poorest state.
On Wednesday, a mob in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, tried to block a boat carrying aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross to the north, where attacks by Rohingya militants on Aug 25 led the military to order a sweeping counter-insurgency offensive. The armed mob dispersed only after police fired rubber bullets.
"With heightened tensions in Rakhine state, humanitarian staff and private contractors are facing serious challenges in implementing life-saving activities," said Mr Pierre Peron, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar.
While 430,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh in the past month, tens of thousands of others who have been displaced remain in the northern part of Rakhine.
Some 30,000 Hindus and Buddhists in the area have also been displaced, with some saying they were terrorised by Rohingya militants.
All are in need of aid, but many ongoing humanitarian activities that were taking place before Aug 25 have not resumed, Mr Peron said.
Ethnic Rakhine people have long complained that foreign aid groups give generously to Muslims while ignoring other equally needy people.
"All people in Rakhine are suffering, but only Muslims get help," said Arakan National Party chief Htun Aung Kyaw.
Ms Kyaw Sein of Rakhine Alin Dagar, a Rakhine advocacy group in Sittwe, said relations between foreign aid groups and the Rakhine people had been poisoned by years of neglect and favouritism.
Yesterday, the army said the remains of 28 Hindus who were brutally killed, including 20 women and six boys, were found in a mass grave in Rakhine.
Meanwhile, cartoons targeting the Rohingya are spreading rapidly across social media. One sketch called "crocodile tears" shows a group of reptiles swimming away from a bank of mutilated animals towards a Western cameraman.
"I had to flee my motherland," a crying crocodile says into the microphone, a swipe at the testimonies of Rohingya refugees who arrived in Bangladesh with accounts of atrocities.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE