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The United Nations has warned aid workers in western Burma of rising hostility and imminent protests from troubled Arakan State’s majority Buddhists, some of whom say humanitarian agencies are giving support to Rohingya Muslim militants.
Reuters has obtained the text of a “precautionary security notification” distributed to the 300 or so UN staff and to international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) in Arakan State on Wednesday.
It notes the “increased likelihood of civil unrest” and the possibility of demonstrations at aid agency offices in the state already racked by violence.
The office of the UN’s resident coordinator in Burma confirmed it had issued the notification as part of routine safety and security practice.
The perception that UN agencies were supporting Muslim militants, and even their support to the broader Muslim community, the note said, “fuelled renewed social media rhetoric and incidents of expressed hostility by some more hardline elements.”
“Rumour and misinformation will continue to be used to fuel anti-UN and INGO sentiment and hostility and elevate anxieties,” it said. “As usual heightened vigilance and the immediate reporting of any security-related information are recommended.”
About 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims live in Arakan State, but are denied citizenship and face restrictions on their movements and access to basic services. About 120,000 remain in camps set up after deadly violence swept the state in 2012, where they rely on aid agencies for basic provisions.
In October, Rohingya militants killed nine border police officers, sparking a security operation beset by allegations of rape, killings and torture by government troops.
Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to grant visas to UN investigators tasked with probing the claims and other abuses.
Tensions have ramped up again since late July after seven Buddhists were found hacked to death in the mountains near Maungdaw, northern Arakan State.
The government said it had discovered forest encampments that proved Muslim “extremists” were responsible for the killings and a spate of other murders in northern Arakan.
Suu Kyi convened a high-level meeting in the capital Naypyidaw to discuss security in Arakan on Wednesday, state media said.
Arakanese Buddhist leaders have long bemoaned the presence of foreign agencies, who they accuse of favouring the Rohingya with aid. Aid offices were sacked during 2014 riots in the state capital, Sittwe.
But the discovery at a suspected militant camp on 30 July of World Food Programme-branded biscuits intended for malnourished children had further angered Buddhists, said Than Tun, an Arakanese community elder in Sittwe.
Arakanese monks and community leaders met on Sunday in Sittwe and called for the government to ensure the security of non-Muslim citizens, who are the minority in the northern part of Arakan dominated by the Rohingya.
Protests were planned across Arakan on Sunday to demand that foreign agencies leave immediately and that the government quickly verify the citizenship credentials of Muslims in the state, Than Tun said.
“We cannot guarantee that there will not be violence like before. UN and INGO staff should be careful how they live and work,” he said.
“If they drive around the city this way and that like in the past, or visit Muslim villages without care, they will cause the Rakhine [Arakanese] to hate them — everything depends on them.”
Arakan State government spokesman Min Aung said he believed locals “had learned from previous mistakes” and would not initiate violence against aid agencies.
At least four humanitarian workers have been confronted by Arakanese people telling them to leave the state in recent days in incidents reported to the UN, two INGO staff told Reuters.
The message on Wednesday, from the UN security adviser for Burma, said the protests were expected to remain peaceful, but demonstrations could grow larger and may eventually target agencies’ offices.