SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

NEW YORK - An international human rights watchdog body Thursday accused the Myanmar’s government of systematically restricting humanitarian aid and imposing discriminatory policies on Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch asked the government to permit unfettered access to humanitarian agencies to provide assistance to Muslim populations, end segregated areas, and put forward a plan for those displaced to return to their homes.

“Burmese (Myanmar) government restrictions on aid to Rohingya Muslims are creating a humanitarian crisis that will become a disaster when the rainy season arrives,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “Instead of addressing the problem, Burma’s (Myanmar’s) leaders seem intent on keeping the Rohingya segregated in camps rather than planning for them to return to their homes.”

An ethnic Arakanese campaign of violence and abuses since June 2012 facilitated by and at times involving state security forces and government officials has displaced more than 125,000 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in western Burma’s (Myanmar’s) Arakan State, according to HRW. Tens of thousands of Rohingya still lack adequate humanitarian aid – leading to an unknown number of preventable deaths – in isolated, squalid displacement camps. Government security forces guarding the camps do not permit the residents to leave the camps, which has a devastating effect on their livelihoods, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has visited every major internally displaced person (IDP) camp in Sittwe Township in Arakan State, as well as pockets of unregistered displaced people in coastal and intra-coastal waterway areas, and in Mrauk-U Township, where many displaced Rohingya currently remain, Hrw said. Displaced Rohingya and non-Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State are located in 13 townships throughout the state; the 15 largest IDP camps are in the area of the state capital, Sittwe.

“The government seems untroubled by the dire humanitarian conditions in the camps in Arakan State but it will be responsible for the lives unnecessarily lost,” Robertson said. “Concerned donor governments should be demanding that the Burmese government produce an action plan to resolve the crisis because continued inaction will only make the crisis worse.”

The Myanmar government has obstructed the allocation of adequate land for relocation sites for displaced Rohingya and Kaman Muslims despite repeated appeals by humanitarian agencies, HRW said. On March 18, the European Commission warned the situation would turn into a “humanitarian disaster” if the internally displaced people living on paddy fields and sand banks were not relocated to safer sites within weeks.

 Meanwhile, Myanmar President Thein Sein on Thursday vowed a tough response to religious extremists after a wave of deadly Buddhist-Muslim violence in the former army-ruled nation.

At least 40 people have been killed and mosques burned in several towns in central Myanmar since fresh sectarian strife erupted on March 20, prompting the government to impose emergency rule and curfews in some areas.

“I would like to warn all political opportunists and religious extremists who try to exploit the noble teachings of these religions and have tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths for their own self-interest: their efforts will not be tolerated,” Thein Sein said in a national address. “In general, I do not endorse the use of force to solve problems. However, I will not hesitate to use force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of general public,” the former general added.

“All perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said, according to an official translation.

The recent clashes were apparently triggered by an argument in a gold shop that turned into an escalating riot, during which mosques were burned, houses razed and charred bodies left lying in the streets. But witnesses say much of the violence appears to be well organised.

Thein Sein blamed the violence on unidentified “instigators” trying to “exploit the situation to engineer violence in other parts of the country.”

 Security forces fired warning shots on Wednesday to disperse rioters and dozens of people have been detained. But Muslim leaders have criticised the security forces for failing to stop the attacks. “These violent attacks include crimes such as arson and massacres which deserve heavy penalties,” the Islamic Religious Affairs Council and several other Muslim groups in Myanmar wrote in an open letter to the president. “However, in this situation the authorities neglected to take swift and effective action against the perpetrators who recklessly committed crimes in front of them,” they added.