Aid Workers Flee, Girl Killed as Attacks Continue in Sittwe

By Lawi Weng 28 March 2014

RANGOON — The Arakan State capital Sittwe was rocked by a second day of attacks on the offices of international aid groups on Thursday, as Arakanese Buddhists sought to chase out humanitarian organizations providing support for the Rohingya Muslim minority, officials and residents said.

An Arakanese girl was killed after she was injured by a police bullet that was fired when police tried to disperse angry crowds, an official said.

The outburst of violence was reportedly prompted by Arakanese anger over the planned UN-backed census. The attacks have drawn condemnation from the UN, the European Union and the United States government.

Win Myaing, an Arakan State spokesman, told The Irrawaddy that an 11-year-old girl died this morning as a result of her injuries which she sustained on Thursday around 4 pm.

“The girl died, but not because of shooting at her. While the police were trying to restore security they fired their guns where there was violence, but the bullet hit her while she was in another place,” he said.

Win Myaing said the situation was “stable” on Friday afternoon, a claim the spokesman had also made a day earlier. He said all aid workers had been evacuated from Sittwe by airplane. Asked if local authorities would help arrange the return of the aid workers soon, Win Myaing said, “No, we don’t have a plan.”

Offices of more than a dozen UN and international NGOs were destroyed by Arakanese mobs and more than 100 aid workers, both foreign and Burmese, have been forced to flee Sittwe, The Irrawaddy has learned.

The state capital is the hub of large-scale operations of a host of aid agencies, such as the World Food Program, UNHCR, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the International Committee for the Red Cross, and Malteser International.

The organizations provide food, health care, water and sanitation care to more than 140,000 people in northern Arakan, mostly Rohingyas displaced by inter-communal violence, but also to impoverished Buddhist communities.

Thein Tun Aye, a local resident, said he visited Sittwe airport this morning and saw a large group of aid workers wait for an Air Bagan flight to Rangoon. “All aid workers are leaving from here,” he said.

Kyaw San, another Sittwe resident, said some residents had even attempted to block the access to road to the airport to prevent aid workers from leaving. “The situation is bad here. Some aid workers have to go and hide for their safety,” he said.

Violence first erupted on Wednesday night, when some Sittwe residents claimed that a foreign staff member of Malteser International had improperly handled a Buddhist flag when she removed it from a building that the organization rented.

The claims quickly proved an excuse for the residents of Sittwe to attack all international aid offices, while some mobs also went in search of the private residences of foreign staffers in order to try to break into their homes. Aid workers were brought to safety and stayed at Sittwe police station.

Violence continued on Thursday night, and more than 20 office buildings and aid supply storage facilities were reportedly ransacked. State-owned media reported that police fired more than 120 warning shots to disperse mobs of several hundred people in several parts of the town.

The UN, US and EU missions in Burma condemned the attacks in statements issued on Thursday.

“We are deeply concerned by mob violence in Sittwe over the past day targeting international NGOs that has resulted in the destruction of property and the emergency relocation of international aid workers,” the US Embassy said.

UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Burma Toily Kurbanov said the UN agencies were determined to resume aid in Arakan State and he urged “the authorities to ensure an appropriate response is provided and perpetrators are held accountable.”

The Arakan State government has said it will conduct an investigation into the attacks, state media reported.

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. Tensions in the state and Sittwe remain high.

The Buddhist 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, Arakanese public demonstrations led the government to suspend the work of Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF) Holland in Arakan State.

In recent weeks, the Arakanese community, whipped up by visiting nationalist monk U Wirathu, voiced their anger over the UN-backed census, as it would allow Rohingya respondents to fill in their ethnicity as they wish, in accordance with international census standards.

The Arakanese community—and the Burma government—object to the Muslim group calling themselves native Rohingya and refer to them as “Bengalis,” to suggest most are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The Sittwe aid community had been expecting the attacks on their offices because the starting date of the census is near and aid deliveries were completed last week in anticipation of the troubles, The Irrawaddy understands.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said in a statement Friday evening that it is “concerned by reports linking the riots to mounting tensions in Rakhine State in relation to the Myanmar census” scheduled to start on March 30.

UNFPA said the census can only be carried out properly “if safety and security of enumerators and respondents is assured,” adding, however, that it will stick with the census methodology in which respondents can self-identify their ethnicity. “This commitment cannot be honored selectively in the face of intimidation or threats of violence,” the UN agency said.

Be Than, a lawmaker for the Arakan National Party, said the methodology of the planned census had angered the local Buddhist population, adding that the alleged improper handling of a Buddhist flag had provided the spark for the outburst of violence against aid workers.

“Our people believe in their minds that most NGOs take only one side [of the Rohingya]. The houses they rent as offices belong to our Arakanese people. The NGOs should think about having the [Buddhist] flags at their buildings,” he said, adding that all of Sittwe residents had put Buddhist flags on their homes and vehicles to signal a boycott of the census.

Sittwe is a predominantly Buddhist after the 70,000 Muslims were chased out during a bloody outburst of violence in 2012.

Rohingya activists, meanwhile, said the suspension of aid support was having an immediate impact on the Muslims in the camps, isolated villages and in the last remaining Muslim neighborhood in Sittwe, Aung Mingalar.

“They destroyed warehouses of WFP. Without rations from WFP, what are our people going to eat? There will be a lot of problems,” said Aung Win, an activist and resident of Aung Mingalar. He said even trade in and out of the neighborhood had to come to a standstill because of the unrest, and food and commodity prices in the area are rising rapidly.

Aung Win said Muslim residents were also concerned over their security since there were no more foreign observers left in Sittwe. “Our people are very worried they will become the target next. They are waiting to watch the situation,” he said.

Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze. This story was updated on Friday March 28, 2014, around 6 pm.