Malaysian aid flotilla bound for Arakan ‘not coming to create tension’

Malaysian aid flotilla bound for Arakan ‘not coming to create tension’

A Malaysian NGO has announced plans to send a flotilla of humanitarian aid to the stricken Rohingya population in northern Arakan State, while Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has cautioned that any such shipment should be directed at assisting both Muslim and Buddhist communities in the country’s west.

Aid to the region has been severely curbed since 9 October, when insurgents launched coordinated attacks on police border outposts in Maungdaw township during which nine officers were killed. Government security forces cracked down swiftly, launching “clearance operations” that have seen more than 80 Rohingya reportedly killed in the search for the attacks’ perpetrators.

The Malaysian Consultative Council of Islam Organisations (MAPIM) hopes to deliver over 600 tonnes of food, medical supplies and shelter provisions to around 300,000 Muslims in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, but the organisation acknowledges success is not guaranteed.

Zulhanis Zainol, MAPIM’s secretary-general, told DVB last week that MAPIM had not yet received explicit permission to land and distribute supplies.

“We sent a letter to our Malaysian Embassy in Rangoon, who will send it on to Naypyidaw. The letter was sent on 15 December — we have not yet heard back. But the [Burmese] Foreign Ministry did tell media that aid would be allowed soon,” he said.

“If they do not allow us then we won’t enter, but it will have a bad impact on the issue of humanitarian rights. We are bringing food and needed items, we are not coming to create tension,” he added.

The fleet of two ships, which is scheduled to leave Malaysia on 10 January, will also carry members of the media, NGO personnel and medical staff.

According to MAPIM, the mission has earned the support of the Turkish government, in the form of media coverage and financial assistance. When contacted by DVB, a representative of the Turkish Embassy in Rangoon said he “did not know anything about that.”

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Zulhanis said his team had engaged in 18 other humanitarian missions in Arakan State since communal violence last flared en masse in 2012, but the flotilla next month is its first attempt to deliver aid from Malaysia by sea.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi agreed to relax restrictions on humanitarian aid at a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on 19 December, which was convened to discuss the escalating violence in Arakan State and reports of military men burning villages and raping Rohingya women.

Suu Kyi’s government has steadfastly denied all reports of wrongdoing by the military, despite satellite photographs of destroyed communities and dozens of women speaking out about alleged sexual violence.

Zulhanis said the decision to organise the latest aid mission was made after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak lashed out at the Burmese government, labelling the ongoing suffering of the Rohingya a “genocide” at a 4 December rally in Kuala Lumpur, angering nationalist Arakanese and violating the long-held ASEAN practice of non-interference in other member states’ affairs.

Aye Aye Soe, a spokesperson for Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told DVB that the government is receptive to the aid shipment, provided the relief comes through the “proper channels.”

“Myanmar welcomes any humanitarian aid coming from an ASEAN country bilaterally … but whatever assistance is provided should be balanced and go to both [Buddhist and Muslim] communities. It should not discriminate one against the other. We don’t want anything that will disrupt peace and stability there,” she said on Monday.

“Any ships that come into Myanmar territory must do so with official permission — as far as we know, this NGO group has not yet officially requested entry. They have to normalise it with paperwork.”

Journalists have been all but barred from accessing the conflict area, save for a state-sponsored media tour last month consisting primarily of domestic news organisations. State media largely hailed the 19-22 December trip a success, announcing that reporters were “impressed” by the access they were afforded.

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