The UN began work inside Myanmar’s violence-torn northern Rakhine state yesterday, the first time its agencies have been granted permission to operate there since more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled the area last year.
The UN has been waiting for access to the epicentre of the military’s “clearance operations” against the Rohingya minority since June when its refugee and development agencies signed a deal with the government.
Its work is highly sensitive inside Rakhine, a state cut deep with ethnic and religious hatred and where Buddhist locals stand accused of helping the army chase out their Muslim neighbours.
Many Rakhine accuse international aid groups, including the UN, of a pro-Rohingya bias and foreign aid groups have been granted very limited access to the state.
The task is complicated further as the UN’s rights arm is expected to heavily censure Myanmar again in the coming days when it publishes in full the findings of its investigation into atrocities against the Rohingya.
On Friday, specialists from the UNHCR and UNDP agencies were finally given permission to enter northern Rakhine before work began yesterday to assess local conditions.
“The team is on the ground and commenced with the first assessments today,” UNHCR spokeswoman Aoife McDonnell told AFP.
This first step of the UN’s “confidence-building measures” is expected to take two weeks and will cover 23 villages and three additional clusters of hamlets.
It was not immediately clear which villages they will visit or which communities the UN teams will consult.
The expectation is this “very initial and small step in terms of access will be expanded rapidly to all areas covered” by the agreement, McDonnell said.
The stateless Rohingya are widely seen as illegal immigrants by Myanmar’s majority-Buddhist population, complicating the repatriation of those who fled to Bangladesh.
Last August’s crackdown by Myanmar’s army pushed hundreds of thousands of Rohingya across the border.