Police in the Arakan capital Sittwe fired warning shots on Wednesday night to disperse a mob of Arakanese Buddhists who were attacking the offices of humanitarian NGO Malteser International, a local official said, adding that police evacuated the organization’s staff after their private residences came under attack.
The crowd was angry at a foreign aid worker after she supposedly took down a Buddhist flag from the office building in a way that the Arakanese nationalists perceived as disrespectful to their religion.
“As there were many people, the riot police force had to fire to disperse the crowd, but no one was hurt as they shot in the sky,” Win Myaing, an Arakan State spokesman, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “The crowd was dispersed at about 11:50 pm last night.”
He said the foreign aid worker and her husband were provided with security and accommodation at the local police force’s reception hall last night. They were later joined by all of the organization’s staff.
Malteser International staff at the organization’s Rangoon office said they could not provide an immediate comment on the incident.
Malteser International is a humanitarian relief agency of the Sovereign Order of Malta with headquarters in Europe and America. The NGO supported tuberculosis patients and local health staff in northern Arakan State.
Sittwe residents alleged a Malteser aid worker had taken down a Buddhist flag in an improper way, hurting local residents’ sensitivities and prompting a violent response.
“Yesterday at the Malteser medical warehouse, the owner of the building posted a religious flag, but a while later that foreign lady arrived. She took down the flag and it touched her lower body and she then put it in her pants’ pocket,” claimed Than Htun, an Arakanese elder in Sittwe. “The surrounding people saw it and the problem started.”
“People marched to Malteser International staff’s home and told her to come out and talk to the locals,” he added. “But she did not. So the angry crowd started throwing stones towards her home.”
Ko Htun, another resident of Sittwe, said the crowd grew bigger at night, adding that the mob went in search of the private apartments that Malteser aid workers were renting in order to enter their homes. “The crowd took out all the materials from the office building andpiled it on to the street, but they did not burn it or do anything,” he said.
Police arrived at the scene about half an hour later and provided security for the NGO staff. All Malteser staff have been pulled from the field and are staying at Sittwe police station and are due to fly out to Rangoon on Friday, said a source close to the NGO, who declined to be identified.
On Thursday, police were deployed at the office buildings and private residences, but an Arakanese mob were reportedly still pelting stones at office of Malteser International.
Northern Arakan State saw waves of violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in 2012 that left scores dead and more than 140,000 people displaced. Sittwe is a predominantly Buddhist town, after about 70,000 Muslims were chased out by Arakanese Buddhist mobs.
Tensions in the state and Sittwe remain high and residents post Buddhist flags in every home, building and vehicle in a display of Arakanese nationalism and unity.
The Arakanese community is virulently anti-Rohingya—a stateless, impoverished minority—and oppose any international humanitarian aid support for the group, which suffers from malnutrition and a range of other health problems as a result of a lack access to government services.
Last month, after months of public campaigning and demonstrations by the Arakanese against the work of Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF) Holland, the government suspended the group’s health care projects in Arakan State, depriving the Rohingya from one of their only sources of health care.
After MSF, which employed 500 staff, Malteser International was the biggest international health care aid group in northern Arakan State, with about 200 staff. The latest violence directed at Malteser International raises the possibility an organized campaign by Arakanese nationalists targeting all international humanitarian groups working with the Muslim population.