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A Malaysian ship carrying food supplies and other humanitarian aid destined for Arakan State was met by both supporters and opponents on Thursday when it docked just southeast of Rangoon.
Its cargo of 2,000 tonnes of aid and 180 volunteers is over one of its first hurdles as it arrived safely in the afternoon at Thilawa port and was welcomed at a ceremony attended by both Malaysian and Burmese government officials.
Malaysian Deputy Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Reezal Merican bin Naina Merican expressed his “sincere feeling of gratitude” to the Burmese government for its hospitality in allowing the delegation to arrive.
The $1 million worth of aid includes 300 tonnes of rice, 10,000 hygiene kits, 3,000 packets of noodles and 10,000 bottles of water.
“I’d like to thank the government for allowing this auspicious and very meaningful event to take place today,” Reezal said in his opening address.
Burma’s minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, Win Myat Aye, also offered his “deepest appreciation” to the Malaysian government for its aid. Although no timeline for the cargo load’s delivery to Arakan State was announced in his speech, he assured those present that the “government will distribute aid to the needy areas at the earliest possible times.”
Reezal made no political statement about Burma’s discrimination and alleged abuses committed against the Rohingya Muslim population at the event, despite Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak sending off the ship last Friday and heralding it as a symbol of solidarity, saying the Rohingya’s suffering was not being ignored.
However, just outside the gates the mood offered a stark contrast as about 50 protesters held anti-Rohingya banners and lined the road leading to the port.
One of the organisers donning a “no Rohingya” bandana, Win Ko Ko Latt from the Myanmar Nationalist Network, said, “Burmese people have no objection with charity but the intention of the flotilla is to advocate for Bengali people’s cause, to legitimise the word ‘Rohingya.’”
Buddhist monk U Thi Suceitta also objected to the use of the word Rohingya and further rejected the notion of the Muslim minority as people indigenous to Burma. He said that they weren’t protesting, but “knowledge-sharing” that in their opinion, the Rohingya did not qualify as one of the ethnic groups that make up Burma. He also stated that he didn’t agree with “a political motive” behind the flotilla’s voyage since the decision for it to set sail came following a meeting that involved the Malaysian prime minister.
In December, Najib caused a diplomatic row when he attended a Rohingya solidarity rally in Kuala Lumpur and urged the international community to intervene in Arakan State, where he said a “genocide” was unfolding.
Few details have been released about which communities will receive the aid in Arakan State — it is not clear if the majority will go to Rohingya in displacement camps or will be shared equally between both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Win Myat Aye made no mention in his speech of the discriminated Rohingya community in Arakan State, but briefly acknowledged the current, volatile situation in the state.
“Rakhine [Arakan] is the second poorest state in the country and is a natural disaster-prone area … compounded by communal conflict unfortunately,” he said, before pledging to provide “humanitarian aid without discrimination.”
The aid was collected by Malaysian NGOs, with several other countries supporting the cargo’s delivery to the persecuted Rohingya.
The Rohingya population has faced discrimination for generations and humanitarian aid has often been blocked from being delivered to displaced Rohingya living in camps in Arakan State. Most are stateless and many in Burma have labeled them “Bengalis,” implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite many tracing familial roots in Arakan State back generations.