Are aid workers under attack in Myanmar?

Myanmar’s government has filed criminal charges against three local staff members of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

This was confirmed by UNCHR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming at a press briefing in Geneva. Fleming, however, did not elaborate on what the charges were.

The three UNHCR employees were among 10 aid workers detained in June by officials from the conflict-afflicted state of Rakhine in northwestern Myanmar. It is not yet clear whether charges were also brought against the other aid workers, who include World Food Program and Médecins Sans Frontières staff members.

The UNHCR’s confirmation of the charges came just as the agency’s head, António Guterres, concluded his visit to Myanmar as part of a five-day trip to Southeast Asia. Guterres’ agenda reportedly included requests for more details of charges and access to agency’s staff members. Both requests were denied, according to news agencies.

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, who is also in Asia for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum, has said he is seeking further information about the arrest of the 10 aid workers. This was after Baird announced Canada’s plans to open an embassy in Myanmar. He also reaffirmed Canadian support for Myanmar’s democratic transition but pressed for “more progress on reforms.” 

The arrests threaten to exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation of ethnic Rohingya Muslims living in camps in Rakhine, where malnutrition and sanitary conditions have been worsening. Further, there have been reports of some monks blocking food aid meant for the Rohingya to “starve them out” and drive them out of the country, Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project told the Guardian.

Given these problems and the coming rainy season, “we don’t need to measure it to know it’s a catastrophe,” Action Against Hunger’s Tarik Kadir said.

Collecting accurate information on the situation in the area has been difficult. International observers, the Guardian reports, have been banned from visiting the state’s northern part, where majority of the ethnic group lives.

Jenny Lei Ravelo contributed reporting.

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About the author

  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.

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