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Food Flotilla for Rohingyas set to sail at month’s end

Radio Islam International | 13 Rabi uth Thani 1438/12 January 2017

Plans are underway for a “food flotilla” to sail from Malaysia to Myanmar’s beleaguered western Rakhine state with emergency supplies for Rohingyas.

The flotilla, organised by a coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), was supposed to leave Malaysia on January 10, but has been postponed and is set to make its way to the restive region by the end of the month instead.

It will carry 1000 tonnes of rice, medical aid and other essentials for the Rohingya population. The flotilla could also comprise approximately 200 passengers, including NGO members, doctors, medical teams, politicians, religious leaders and crews.

Organisers say they had written to the Myanmar government for approval of the mission in December through Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry, but were denied entry into Myanmar’s waters.

Myanmar has acknowledged asking Malaysia to try to prevent Malaysian nongovernment organisations from sending an aid flotilla to help “a specific community” in restive Rakhine State, a reference to the Rohingya Muslim minority.

The Foreign Ministry said it had told the Malaysian Embassy it “would be grateful if the government of Malaysia could kindly take necessary measures to prevent the reported attempt by certain NGOs to send aid flotilla, which cannot be allowed to enter without prior approval from the government of Myanmar”.

It said that while Myanmar welcomed humanitarian assistance from the governments of fellow Asean member states, such aid should be for “both communities in Rakhine State without any discrimination and the proposal should be made through the proper diplomatic channel”.

By “both communities”, it was referring also the Rakhine Buddhist community.

The flotilla is spearheaded by the Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Organisations(MAPIM) and a coalition of non-government organisations from the region.

Zulhanis Zainol, the organisation’s general secretary, has indicated that even if permission is not granted, the flotilla will continue to sail as it was considered “an important humanitarian mission”.

Zainol said the flotilla could face three scenarios – being allowed to land and hand over supplies, being told to turn back from Myanmar waters or being attacked by Myanmar security forces.

“Access to the area is completely blocked. This resembles Gaza as victims are squeezed between military attacks and closure of the border to a neighbouring country,” Mr Zulhanis was quoted as saying. 

“As a result all access is completely blocked and humanitarian agencies are not allowed to enter,” he said.

At a packed news conference held at a warehouse outside Kuala Lumpur last week, the lead organiser, Putera 1Malaysia Club, added that the ship would dock in Bangladesh instead, if Myanmar does not want to cooperate.

“Look at us. We are not terrorists (and) we are not there to fight with them – we are there to ease their problems,” said Mr Abdul Azeez, chairman of the pro-government NGO. “We are begging to come in to help them on a humanitarian mission.”

The Malaysian government has publicly criticised Myanmar in recent months for its handling of the Rohingya in Rakhine state, with Prime Minister Najib Razak calling for foreign intervention to stop the “genocide” of Rohingya Muslims.

His comments raised ire in Myanmar, but the Malaysian NGOs said they come with good intentions. “There is no issue of us challenging the sovereignty of the country. There is no issue of us insulting the country – we are a family of ASEAN,” said the president of the Malaysian Consultative Council for Islamic Organisations (MAPIM), Mr Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid.

Their plea to the Myanmar government to allow access also received the backing of the high priest of Kuala Lumpur’s biggest Buddhist temple. “There is no hidden agenda,” said Reverend K Sri Dhammaratana. “There is no terrorism. It’s a sincere project we are doing.”

According to MAPIM, the mission has also earned the support of the Turkish government, in the form of media coverage and financial assistance.

Zulhanis said his team had engaged in 18 other humanitarian missions in Arakan State since communal violence last flared en masse in 2012, but the flotilla next month is its first attempt to deliver aid from Malaysia by sea.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi agreed to relax restrictions on humanitarian aid at a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on 19 December, which was convened to discuss the escalating violence in Arakan State and reports of military men burning villages and raping Rohingya women.

Suu Kyi’s government has steadfastly denied all reports of wrongdoing by the military, despite satellite photographs of destroyed communities and dozens of women speaking out about alleged sexual violence.

Aye Aye Soe, a spokesperson for Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told DVB that the government is receptive to the aid shipment, provided the relief comes through the “proper channels.”

“Myanmar welcomes any humanitarian aid coming from an ASEAN country bilaterally … but whatever assistance is provided should be balanced and go to both [Buddhist and Muslim] communities. It should not discriminate one against the other. We don’t want anything that will disrupt peace and stability there,” she said on Monday.

“Any ships that come into Myanmar territory must do so with official permission — as far as we know, this NGO group has not yet officially requested entry. They have to normalise it with paperwork.”

Journalists have been all but barred from accessing the conflict area, save for a state-sponsored media tour last month consisting primarily of domestic news organisations. State media largely hailed the 19-22 December trip a success, announcing that reporters were “impressed” by the access they were afforded.

An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Rohingya, displaced by previous violence, live in Malaysia.

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