Aung San Suu Kyi’s office has accused international aid workers of helping “terrorists”, a claim that has prompted fears for their safety and been condemned as dangerously irresponsible.
The state counsellor office said it had learned that international aid staff had “participated while extremist terrorists besieged” a village in Rakhine state, adding it would investigate the claims.
The office, headed by Suu Kyi who is the country’s de facto leader, also posted a photo of United Nations world food programme biscuits which it said were found on 30 July “at the camp where terrorists sheltered”.
The government statements come during a time of spiralling anti-Muslim sentiment, stoked by hardline religious leaders in majority Buddhist Myanmarwho accuse UN agencies, with little evidence, of supporting a faction of Islamist militants.
Facing claims of crimes against humanity for army attacks on the minority Muslim Rohingya population, Suu Kyi’s administration has sought to severely restrict access to Rakhine for aid groups and the media while publicly discrediting them.
“In light of the situation on the ground, the UN in Myanmar has decided to temporarily relocate non-critical staff out of Maungdaw,” a UN spokesperson said of the town in Rakhine, without elaborating.
A local reporter in the town of Buthidaun said he saw close to 100 aid staff leave in speedboats after the statement was posted on Facebook on Sunday.
Matthew Smith, executive director of human rights non-profit Fortify Rights, said anti-aid worker statements from Suu Kyi’s office were “deeply irresponsible, dangerous, and potentially deadly.
“Suu Kyi’s inflammatory propaganda is fuelling anti-Rohingya and anti-aid worker sentiment at a time when she should be doing everything in her power to instill calm and promote human rights.”
Earlier this month, the UN warned aid workers in Rakhine of rising hostility, pointing to an “increased likelihood of civil unrest” and the possibility of demonstrations against international non-government organisations (INGOs). Aid offices were ransacked during 2014 riots in the state capital, Sittwe.
“Rumour and misinformation will continue to be used to fuel anti-UN and INGO sentiment and hostility and elevate anxieties,” the report said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Suu Kyi’s accusations against aid workers were “profoundly irresponsible”.
WFP sent a statement to the Guardian saying it took “any allegation of food diversions very seriously and we have requested more details from the authorities and asked to see the batch number of the biscuits as this will allow us to trace its origins and distribution site.”
It added: “We are still waiting for these details to be provided.”
At least 104 people, including 12 members of the security forces, have been killed in Rakhine state after Rohingya militants called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police on Friday, the bloodiest fighting since hostilities erupted last year.
In a lethal escalation of a conflict that has simmered in the region for years, thousands of Muslim refugees have fled across the border to Bangladesh from what they describe as a military onslaught.
The State Counsellor’s office has also ordered all media to use the term terrorists rather insurgent to describe Rohingya militants. It warned it would use counter-terrorism laws to enforce the ban.
The administration of Suu Kyi, who came to power in 2015 elections under the promise of reform, has refused to grant visas to UN investigators tasked with probing claims of abuses by the military on Rohingya civilians.
A Myanmar government commission accused the UN of a smear campaign after the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in February that security forces had committed mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya in actions that “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity and possibly ethnic cleansing.