Foreign aid workers feel the burn of Myanmar’s ethnic fires

Among certain factions of Rakhine Buddhists, hatred for the Rohingya runs so hot that almost any overture of sympathy towards the displaced Muslims causes hatred to spill over onto the sympathizer. In their eyes, the Rohingya are invaders run amok from neighboring Bangladesh. They are commonly described by their detractors as “black” or “cruel” or “devilish.”

Myanmar’s coastal Rakhine State is stricken with just the sort of mess certain international aid groups are designed to relieve.

Roiling conflict between the region’s native Buddhists and a stateless Muslim ethnicity, the Rohingya, has brought on mob killings, torched villages, mass displacement and even bow-and-arrow wounds.

The remote state is cursed with poor public services. With tens of thousands now living in makeshift camps, malaria and tuberculosis outbreaks are worsening. Yet the international aid groups who flock towards such disaster zones — Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations among them — are encountering furious resistance from bands of local Buddhists.

Foreign aid to the Rohingya, who’ve reportedly suffered the brunt of the violence, is interpreted by some as lending aid and comfort to Islamic terrorists.

“In their view, even medical attention constitutes a kind of support,” said Joe Belliveau, operations manager with Doctors Without Borders, the Switzerland-based group also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres.

A wave of death threats — conveyed face-to-face, in pamphlets and on Facebook — has convinced Doctors Without Borders to temporarily shrink its force of 300 or so down to a few dozen staffers. “Luckily, nobody has been the object of a direct attack. The threats are vague but strong enough to scare our staff … and they tend to very clear in saying, ‘Stop what you’re doing.’”


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