The United Nations began work yesterday inside Myanmar's violence-torn northern Rakhine state, 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 U.N. has been waiting for access to the epicenter 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 neighbors. Many Rakhine accuse international aid groups, including the U.N., 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 U.N.'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 on Wednesday 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 U.N.'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 U.N. 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 deployment of the two U.N. agencies comes as Myanmar faces growing demands for accountability over its treatment of the Rohingya.
A U.N.-led report last week two weeks ago called for the prosecution of army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and five other top-ranking generals for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. That was swiftly followed by a ruling by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that it has jurisdiction to open a probe into "deportations" of the Rohingya, saying it was a cross-border crime. Myanmar is not a signatory of the statute underpinning the tribunal and has rejected the remit of the court. The move could potentially lead to a wider probe and an eventual trial.
Myanmar will once again be under scrutiny at the U.N. General Assembly in early October, though civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be notably absent.
The Rohingya, described by the U.N. as the world's most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012. In a report, U.N. investigators said such violations may have constituted crimes against humanity.
The stateless Rohingya have been the target of communal violence and vicious anti-Muslim sentiment in mainly Buddhist Myanmar for years. Myanmar has denied citizenship to Rohingya since 1982 and excludes them from the 135 ethnic groups it officially recognizes, which effectively renders them stateless. The Rohingya trace their presence in Rakhine back centuries. However, most people in majority-Buddhist Myanmar consider them to be unwanted Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh.