Myanmar has blocked all United Nations aid agencies from delivering vital supplies of food, water and medicine to thousands of desperate civilians at the centre of a bloody military campaign in Myanmar, the Guardian has learned.
The world body halted distributions in northern Rakhine state after militants attacked government forces on 25 August and the army responded with a counteroffensive that has killed hundreds.
The Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Myanmar told the Guardian that deliveries were suspended “because the security situation and government field-visit restrictions rendered us unable to distribute assistance”, suggesting authorities were not providing permission to operate.
“The UN is in close contact with authorities to ensure that humanitarian operations can resume as soon as possible,” it said. Aid was being delivered to other parts of Rakhine state, it added.
In the deadliest violence for decades in the area, the military is accused of atrocities against the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority, tens of thousands of whom have fled burning villages to neighbouring Bangladesh, many with bullet wounds.
Staff from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), have not conducted any field work in northern Rakhine for more than a week, a dangerous halt in life-saving relief that will affect poor Buddhist residents as well as Rohingya.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said it also had to suspend distributions to other parts of the state, leaving a quarter of a million people without regular food access.
Sixteen major non-government aid organisations – including Oxfam and Save the Children – have also complained that the government has restricted access to the conflict area.
Humanitarian organisations are “deeply concerned about the fate of thousands of people affected by the ongoing violence” in northern Rakhine, said Pierre Peron, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Myanmar.
Refugees who have made it to Bangladesh during the past week have told horrific stories of “massacres” in villages that they say were raided and burned by soldiers. Along miles of the border, thick black smoke can be seen rising from small settlements surrounded by green fields.
The government blames rebels for burning their own homes and accuses them of killing Buddhists and Hindus, a claim repeated by some residents.
Although the Rohingya have suffered oppression for decades, the recent bout of violence is seen as a dangerous escalation because it was sparked by a new Rohingya militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
The military says 400 people have been killed, the vast majority of them “terrorists”, although a government block on access to Rakhine makes it impossible to verify official figures.
An estimated 1.1 million Rohingya live in Myanmar, which refuses to grant them citizenship and has been internationally condemned for its treatment of the ethnic minority.
Hardline religious leaders in majority Buddhist Myanmar have fuelled anti-Muslim sentiment and accuse relief workers of a pro-Rohingya bias. Aid offices were ransacked during 2014 riots in Rakhine’s state capital, Sittwe.
Leader Aung San Suu Kyi has also forged an increasingly antagonistic relationship with humanitarian organisations in Myanmar. Her office accused aid workers last week of helping “terrorists”, a claim that prompted fears for their safety.
More than 100,000 Rohingya who have lived in displacement camps in Rakhine since 2012 when violence between Muslims and Buddhists forced them out of their homes, also stopped receiving assistance last week.
Contractors reportedly refused to make deliveries to the camps because they were too scared of local resentment to show up for work. Latrines are overflowing in camps that normally receive regular assistance.
Authorities have also denied international staff access by holding up visa approvals while “non-critical” staff from the north of the state have been evacuated.
“There is an urgent need to ensure that displaced people and other civilians affected by the violence are protected and are given safe access to humanitarian assistance including food, water, shelter, and health services,” OCHA spokesman Peron said.
“Humanitarian aid normally goes to these vulnerable people for a very good reason, because they depend on it,” he added. “For the sake of vulnerable people in all communities in Rakhine state, urgent measures must be taken to allow vital humanitarian activities to resume.”