In Myanmar's western Rakhine State, home to several camps of internally displaced people (IDPs), tensions are running hot.

Late last month, riots and attacks on the UN and NGOs led to the relocation of 170 aid workers. This is worrying for two reasons. Firstly, the IDP camps that hold 140,000 people (mainly Rakhine Muslims) are already suffering from shortages of medical care, food and drinking water, so the disruption of aid work could prove deadly. Secondly, it appears the Myanmar Government is unable to calm the repeated and increasing outbreaks of violence.

On 26 and 27 March, riots which involved over 400 people targeted the offices and residences of Medicins Sans Frontier, UNHCR, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Malteser International and others in the state capital Sittwe. Reports indicate that 71 aid workers were evacuated following the incident and 170 staff relocated. After some hours, local security forces arrived and aided their evacuation, firing multiple rounds into the air to disperse the rioters. An 11-year old girl was killed during these events, and the following day Naypyidaw set up an investigation committee to probe the incident and find the culprits. 

Rakhine Buddhists have protested against NGOs in the past. Protests earlier this year led to the end of Medicins Sans Frontier's operations in Rakhine State. Rakhine Buddhists see the organisations as supporting only the Muslim communities.

The riots underscore a worrying trend in Myanmar. According to government numbers, 167 people have been killed and 223 injured in the recent communal violence (as highlighted in earlier posts). Rakhine Muslims, known broadly outside the country as Rohingyas, have taken shelter in IDP camps and tens of thousands more have have fled over the border to Bangladesh or by boat.

These camps, which hold some 140,000 people, are under increasing pressure.

As Myanmar's mercury soars, much of the country is this week celebrating the Thingyan water festival. It is a cruel reality, then, that according to humanitarian organisations, the 140,000 people in Rakhine State's IDP camps don't have enough drinking water. The UN Special Rapporteur for Myanmar noted in a statement on 7 April that water availability could reach critical levels within a week in some camps. 

As a result, the UK last week summoned the Myanmar ambassador to discuss the deteriorating humanitarian situation and restriction of access of aid workers. The invitation led to a strong rebuke from Myanmar's presidential spokesperson, U Ye Htut, stating that the UK was interfering in Myanmar's internal affairs. 

While the Myanmar Government has since re-emphasised its commitment to protecting aid workers, the problem remains that Rakhine Buddhists want Rakhine Muslims to leave. Human rights groups have been murmuring about the threat of ethnic cleansing and a government policy of persecution against the Rakhine Muslims. While this is largely uncorroborated, what is worrying is the Government's unwillingness to engage on the issue. Daw Aung San Sui Kyi has been widely criticised for her silence, but other politicians have been equally mute.

A key reason for this lack of government engagement is that many people in the country support the Rakhine Buddhists. This sentiment is exacerbated by politicians positioning themselves for the 2015 election, and by a young, newly free and inflammatory media. There is also concern that any action against the Rakhine Buddhists could provoke countrywide protests and reprisal attacks against Muslims.

The national census, now underway, will likely return results that will suggest, incorrectly, that the Muslim population in the country has increased by up to three-fold. This will exacerbate tensions and could provoke further violence.

The Myanmar Government would be wise to act early and turn up the volume on its support for a peaceful solution to communal violence that includes greater dialogue with Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims. International support is also needed. Pressure should be applied by all international actors in Myanmar, investors included. If the Government fails to act, this issue could break the fabric of the country's transition, jettison its promised wealth and lead to a lot more bloodshed.

Photo by Flickr user European Commission.