Myanmar police clashed with an angry mob blocking an aid shipment in Rakhine state, hampering urgently-needed relief efforts for Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence.
Communal tensions remain high across Rakhine where raids by Rohingya militants at the end of last month sparked a massive army crackdown, driving more than 420,000 people into Bangladesh in what the UN calls a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”.
Aid groups fear that tens of thousands trapped in Rakhine state are desperate for support, even though humanitarian access is still hampered despite the government’s promise to allow safe passage.
The crisis has prompted a global chorus of condemnation against the country’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi for refusing to blame Myanmar’s powerful military for the crackdown, which French President Emmanuel Macron said amounted to “genocide”.
A 300-strong Buddhist mob in Rakhine’s state capital Sittwe massed late Wednesday at a jetty where a boat carrying relief goods was preparing to travel up river to hard-hit Maungdaw.
They forced the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) to unload the aid from the boat and prevented the vessel from leaving, state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported Thursday, quoting Myanmar’s Information Committee.
Police officers arrived as the crowd neared the jetty, while Buddhist monks also tried to calm the mob, but people began to hurl “stones and Molotov (cocktails) at the riot police” the report said.
Eight people were detained and several police were injured before order was restored.
The ICRC confirmed the incident and said they would continue to try and deliver relief to the area.
“We will carry on, nothing has been put on hold,” Graziella Leite Piccoli, ICRC spokeswoman for Asia, told AFP.
– ‘Genocide’ – News of the clashes in the violence-wracked state, where security forces have been accused of razing scores of Rohingya villages, emerged as a truck hired by the Red Cross and ICRC crashed in Bangladesh, killing nine people and injuring 10 others. “It was carrying the food to Rohingya refugees on the border, including those stranded in the no-man’s land,” Yasir Arafat, deputy police chief of Bandarban border district, told AFP.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have streamed into Bangladesh since the end of August, cramming into ill-equipped camps and makeshift shelters near the border town of Cox’s Bazar.
Aid groups have been overwhelmed by the scope of the influx and warned of an unfolding humanitarian crisis in the camps, where they are scrambling to build housing and provide food rations.
The Bangladesh government is building a massive new camp nearby to shelter 400,000 people, but the United Nations says it will take time before it is equipped with tents, toilets and medical facilities.
Myanmar’s government has come under fire by global leaders urging the country to address the crisis and condemn the military for attacks on the Rohingya, who are widely reviled as “Bengali” immigrants in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
But Myanmar, which has been accused of downplaying the violence, insisted the crisis was easing.
“I am happy to inform you that the situation has improved,” Myanmar’s second vice president Henry Van Thio told the UN General Assembly Wednesday.
He said there have been no clashes since September 5 and added that his government was committed to allowing aid in.
“Humanitarian assistance is our first priority. We are committed to ensuring that aid is received by all those in need, without discrimination,” he said.
There were more than one million Rohingyas in Myanmar before the current crisis, though nearly half have fled since the deadly attacks on military posts by The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants on August 25.
They have long been ostracised in Myanmar, where they are considered illegal immigrants and face severe restrictions.