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US envoy urges Myanmar to help aid groups return

Associated Press Updated: April 10, 2014 at 8:49 am

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — As Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar face acute shortages of water, food and medical care, a visiting U.S. State Department official urged the government to work quickly to facilitate the return of aid groups, saying the word was watching.

Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, met with President Thein Sein and other top government officials during a two-day visit ending Thursday.

He said his main focus was the spiraling humanitarian crisis in the strife-torn state of Rakhine following the departure late last month of almost all foreign aid workers.

They fled after their residences and offices were attacked by hundreds of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, who have criticized the groups for providing assistance to members of the long-persecuted Rohingya community.

Water and food shortages in some camps for more than 140,000 internally displaced people — mostly Rohingya — have reached critical levels and food rations are expected to run out in the next week, aid workers say. Most emergency medical services have stopped.

The government vowed Wednesday to work with international humanitarian aid organizations, saying they would be offered protection so they could return and resume their activities. Some have been promised necessary travel authorization within days.

But Russel said it was not "sufficiently clear" that the two biggest medical care providers, Doctors Without Borders and Malteser International would be able to return "with the access and in a time frame that we think is desirable."

"The crux of my message was that the whole world is watching," he said. "And the responsibility rests with the central government to see to the security not only of the people in Rakhine state... but also the security of the international aid workers."

The workers are the main lifeline for more than 140,000 Rohingya Muslims who have been living in dirty, crowded camps after their villages were destroyed by mobs. Up to 280 people have also been killed, most of them Rohingya.

They also provide food, water and medical care to 700,000 other vulnerable people in the state, both Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine.

Aid groups said privately they were eager to return to Rakhine but that resuming their aid activities would be difficult in the current climate, where any assistance given to Rohingya is viewed by Buddhist extremists as a political act.

The aid groups' distribution network has, for the most part, been dismantled.

The biggest provider of humanitarian assistance, Doctors Without Borders, was kicked out of the state in February, a month before the rioting, in part because it hired Rohingya. There were no indications this week that the government would help and protect it like the others.

The Rohingya have been described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

Myanmar considers the Ronhingya to be illegal immigrants, even families who've lived there for generations, and it denies them citizenship and restricts where they can travel, what jobs they can hold and how many children they can have.

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