UN World Food Program decries looting and burning of its warehouse in western Myanmar combat zone

BANGKOK (AP) — The United Nations’ food agency on Tuesday strongly condemned the looting of food supplies and burning of one of its warehouses over the weekend in a war-torn area in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine.

A statement released by the World Food Program said the destroyed building in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township held 1,175 metric tons (1,295 U.S. tons) of food and supplies — enough to sustain 64,000 people for a month in case of an emergency.

The incident, which happened on Sunday, makes even more desperate a humanitarian crisis caused by bitter fighting between Myanmar’s military government and guerrillas of the Arakan Army belonging the Rakhine ethnic minority, which seeks autonomy from the central government.

The wider context of the fighting is Myanmar’s nationwide civil war, in which pro-democracy guerrillas and ethnic minority armed forces battle the country’s military rulers, who took power in 2021 after the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The fiercest fighting is currently taking place in Rakhine. The U.N. says that more than 3 million people have been displaced nationwide by fighting since the 2021 army takeover, causing a massive and largely unmet need for humanitarian assistance.

The WFP also called “on all parties to the conflict to uphold their obligations under International Humanitarian Law to ensure that humanitarian facilities and assets are respected and protected, and safe and secure access is provided for the delivery of vital assistance to those in urgent need.”

The statement did not identify the perpetrators of the looting. The Arakan Army blamed the attack on army soldiers and local Muslims said to be fighting alongside them.

However, Nay San Lwin, a co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, an advocacy group based outside of Myanmar, said in a message to The Associated Press that members of both the Arakan Army and Myanmar’s military had been separately involved in the looting and burning of the WFP warehouse, which held more than 20,000 bags of rice.

Maungdaw, in northern Rakhine and close to the country’s border with Bangladesh, appears to be on the verge of being seized by the Arakan Army.

Several days ago, the guerrilla group urged the residents of Maungdaw, who are mostly from the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, to evacuate from their houses urgently for their safety.

In May, the Arakan Army took over another Rakhine city, which like Maungdaw has a majority Rohingya population. At the time, the military government and the Arakan Army each blamed the other for burning down most of the city and forcing its residents to leave.

The Rohingya were the targets of a brutal counterinsurgency campaign incorporating rape and murder that saw an estimated 740,000 flee to neighboring Bangladesh as their villages were burned down by government troops in 2017.

Ethnic Rakhine nationalist supporters of the Arakan Army were then among the persecutors of the Rohingya minority. The Arakan Army now claims it is not prejudiced against the Rohingya, and provides them with humanitarian aid. The military government similarly claims to have been distributing rice to Maungdaw’s residents.

Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, but they are widely regarded by many in the country’s Buddhist majority, including members of the Rakhine minority, as having illegally migrated from Bangladesh. The Rohingya face discrimination, and are generally denied citizenship and other basic rights.

Armed resistance against military rule intensified last October, when an alliance of three ethnic fighting groups, including the Arakan Army, launched a successful offensive to seize territory and towns in northeast Myanmar along the border with China.

Later, China brokered a months-long truce between the military and the Three Brotherhood Alliance, but in recent days fighting has resumed in the area between an alliance partner, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the military government’s troops.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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