Buddhists in Myanmar have blocked aid workers from visiting a camp for displaced Muslims in the central part of Rakhine State, where the United Nations fears the spread of violence that has already displaced hundreds of thousands, reports Reuters.
More than 600,000 of Myanmar's largely stateless Rohingya minority have crossed to Bangladesh since Aug 25 attacks by Rohingya militants sparked a military crackdown beset by allegations of killings, rape and arson by security forces.
The UN has called the army operation "ethnic cleansing". Myanmar has denied the majority of allegations and said it will accept the return of those who can prove they are residents.
A regional administrator and an activist told Reuters a group of about 10 Myanmar nationals working for US- and Britain- based charity Relief International (RI) was forced to turn back on Wednesday when residents of the mostly Buddhist ethnic Rakhine community staged a protest in the town of Myebon.
Reuters reported this month that activists among the town's Buddhist majority had stepped up efforts to segregate Buddhists and Muslims, instructing Rakhines not to trade with Muslims, for fear of militancy.
Deliveries of food aid to Myebon's Muslims have been delayed and only allowed in after inspections by Buddhist community representatives.
"The RI group were trying to go to the camp and the locals blocked the way," said Tin Shwe, the town's administrator, adding that the aid workers returned to their office after Wednesday's incident.
Samir Maleh, country director for Relief International in Myanmar, declined to comment on the incident.
Leaders of the Rakhine Buddhist community have long bristled at international agencies and NGOs whom they accuse of favouring the Rohingya with their support.
Aid workers and UN staff have told Reuters they fear enforced segregation may trigger further displacement in Rakhine, either through fresh violence or as Muslims flee on boats to Malaysia and Thailand, fuelling a new stage of crisis in the Bay of Bengal.
Wednesday's incident was the latest example of the numerous obstacles that humanitarian organizations face in Rakhine State, said Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
"Of course we respect that any group should be able to exercise their rights of freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, but the simple fact here is that life-saving aid is being blocked from reaching vulnerable people who desperately need it, including children and the elderly."
About 3,000 Muslims - including Rohingya and those accepted as Myanmar citizens - have been confined to a camp for displaced people in Myebon since communal violence swept Rakhine in 2012.
Photos posted on social media site Facebook on Wednesday showed about two dozen women sitting down to block a small street, with a smaller group of men standing behind.
Khin Thein, a leader of a regional branch of the Arakan Women's Network, said her group joined the protest after authorities told the community the NGO would provide education about gender-based violence, hygiene and sanitation to Muslims.
"They have food, they have shelter to live," she told Reuters. "We can't accept these kinds of excess things for them. We will not allow them to pass through our township. We already protested several times in the past. We have suspicions about them. We don't trust foreigners, international people."
Meanwhile, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said he pitched a bilateral solution to the Rohingya crisis during his Myanmar visit, report agencies.
"We've told them that this should be resolved bilaterally and that's what we want. Our honourable prime minister wants it too," Khan said at a media briefing at the Secretariat on Thursday, a day after his return from Naypyidaw.
He hinted that Bangladesh would think of something else if Myanmar did not respond to Bangladesh's call for a bilateral solution to the crisis.
"We've told them that we would raise the issue at different platforms gradually, because Bangladesh is shouldering the burden."
The home minister said Bangladesh and Myanmar would form a joint working group by November 30 next for repatriation of Rohingyas who have taken shelter in Bangladesh in the face of persecution on them by military forces in Rakhine State.
While talking to reporters after returning home wrapping up his two-day visit to Myanmar, the minister said, "Earlier, the two countries had agreed to constitute the joint working group. But during my visit, I finalised the date to set all the terms and regulations of the group by November 30."
The terms and regulations of the joint group will be formulated keeping the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and the five-point proposal at the UN in mind, he said.
Asaduzzaman said his Myanmar counterpart Lt Gen Kyaw Swe assured them of taking back the displaced Rohingyas from Bangladesh.
Following a long discussion on how to deal with the influx of Rohingyas into Bangladesh, the Myanmar government agreed to halt the exodus and move as fast as possible to restore normalcy in Rakhine, he added.
"As Kyaw Swe tried to describe Rohingyas as Bangladeshis, I told him that around 35 crore people around the globe speak in Bangla but it doesn't mean that they all are Bangladeshis and here in Bangladesh, there's no such situation which may trigger exodus of our people," the minister said.
During his meeting with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, she also informed him that they had already started the groundwork to implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission to resolve the Rohingya crisis, he said.
Asaduzzaman also said the Myanmar government handed over an obscure list of terrorists without mentioning their parents' names or addresses to the Bangladesh delegation suspecting that they might have fled into Bangladesh. "The list is now in the hand of IGP. We assured them of taking action against the militants," he added.
Some other issues like border security, smuggling in drugs and human trafficking were also discussed at the meeting, he said.
The home minister went to Myanmar on Monday for bilateral talks and returned home on Wednesday.