YANGON (Reuters) - A small group of protesters greeted a ship from Malaysia when it docked in Myanmar on Thursday carrying aid bound for the troubled state of Rakhine, where many members of the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority live.
The ship docked on the outskirts of the commercial hub, Yangon, where it was due to unload 500 tonnes of food and emergency supplies, with the rest of its 2,200 tonne cargo bound for southeast Bangladesh.
Almost 69,000 Rohingyas have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in the past four months from a security force crackdown.
The aid shipment from mostly Muslim Malaysia has stirred opposition in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where many see the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Malaysia has been an outspoken critic of Myanmar over the crisis in Rakhine state, which erupted after nine policemen were killed in attacks on border posts on Oct. 9 claimed by Rohingya militants.
U.N. officials working with refugees in Bangladesh have told Reuters the death toll in the Myanmar security sweep could be more than 1,000.
Refugees have given journalists, human rights groups and U.N. investigators detailed accounts of troops firing on civilians, burning villages, beatings, detention and rape.
The Myanmar government, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has rejected the reports of abuse, saying many were fabricated. It insists the strife is an internal matter.
Underlining the controversy surrounding the aid for the Rohingya, several dozen Buddhist monks and nationalists demonstrated outside the port terminal on Thursday.
They held signs rejecting the use of the name Rohingya - the name most Muslims in northern Rakhine state use to describe themselves, which Myanmar rejects.“We don’t mind that they want to support people who are suffering,” Buddhist monk U Thuseiktha told Reuters.
“But we don’t want political exploitation of this issue by calling them Rohingya. The name Rohingya doesn’t exist.”
Myanmar officials have also accused Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak of tapping into the Rohingya cause “to promote a certain political agenda”.
The Muslim groups and aid organisations behind the aid shipment had hoped to deliver the supplies directly to Rohingyas in Rakhine State, but were instead forced to hand the aid over to the Myanmar government in Yangon.
Myanmar has also insisted that it be distributed equally between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State.
Abd. Aziz Sheikh Fadzir, a lawmaker from Najib’s ruling party who attended the docking, said the organizations behind the shipment had been delivering aid to other crises around Asia and the Pacific.
Any suggestion of political expediency was “speculation”, he said.
Najib has called Myanmar’s military operation “genocide” and saw off the shipment when it left Malaysia last Friday.
Reezal Merican Naina Merican, Malaysia’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, who was also at the port, praised Myanmar for agreeing to accept the delivery, saying it built confidence between the international community and Myanmar.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, said Rakhine was “the second-poorest state in Myanmar, is a natural disaster-prone area by geographical location, and it is compounded by communal conflicts unfortunately”.Myanmar has been criticized for hampering the work of agencies including the U.N. World Food Program trying to feed people in area where malnutrition rates were high before the conflict .The government had been delivering aid to affected people in northern Rakhine “without discrimination”, Win Myat Aye said, adding Myanmar would “arrange the distribution of this aid to the communities in the affected areas at the soonest possible time”.
Editing by Robert Birsel