Some Foreign Aid Groups Return to Sittwe After Riots

By Lawi Weng 21 April 2014

RANGOON — International humanitarian organizations have begun returning to Arakan State after aid workers fled riots in the state capital of Sittwe last month, a police official and a United Nations representative told The Irrawaddy.

Rioting on March 26-27 was sparked by an alleged incident where an American aid worker for Malteser International was said to have inappropriately handled a Buddhist flag. Offices of aid organizations and UN agencies, as well as storage facilities, cars, boats and private homes were pelted with stones or ransacked, and an Arakanese girl was killed by a stray bullet as police fired warning shots to try to disperse the mob.

Tun Oo, a police colonel in Sittwe, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the state government would allow all NGOs and UN agencies, with the exceptions of Malteser International and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), to return.

“They all will restart their projects. All of them were allowed to come back except Malteser International and MSF. Some projects have already restarted here,” said Tun Oo.

In lieu of comprehensive government services, numerous aid organizations meet many of the needs of people in Arakan State, one of the poorest parts of Burma. As of late last year about 15 NGOs were providing health care in the state, for example.

Locals have accused international aid groups of favoring Rohingya Muslims, who make up most of the people living in camps for those displaced by violence in the region since mid-2012. Earlier in March, MSF—which was a major health care provider to people across the state—was banned from Arakan completely after protests against the organization.

Tun Oo said Malteser International would not be allowed back out of concern for the safety of aid workers.

“We are worried that local people will make problems with them. The locals will throw rock at their offices if the people know they have come back,” said Tun Oo.

Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that 39 staff from UN agencies and international NGOs had been granted authorization to return to Arakan State, effective last week.

“We were able to get travel authorizations, which were fast-tracked. So as of today, there are travel authorizations for some staff to come back, which is the good news,” he said, adding that some aid services had already been resumed.

“For example, activities for malnutrition—to treat children with severe acute malnutrition—that has started again. There were some food distributions that were done using trucks supplied by the government.

“But again, still, one of the big gaps remains is in terms of health. The Ministry of Health is doing what it can, but there are many mobile clinics that usually happen and emergency health referrals that usually happen, that aren’t taking place.”

Pressure on aid organizations has led to concerns about meeting the needs of about 140,000 people living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Arakan State.

“The problem is still a large part having access to IDP camps. That’s still for the most part not possible. These activities are being done by national staff and staff that are already in the camps,” Peron said.

He said access to the camps would be a matter for discussion during a meeting between UN staff and the Burmese government on Wednesday. Peron added that several of the offices damaged by the mobs would be repaired this week.

Police have said 12 suspects have been detained in relation to the rioting. According to local sources, one suspect died in custody last week due to a problem involving high blood pressure.

“We are asking for suggestions from law experts. We will prosecute all of them after we knew what crimes we can prosecute them for,” said the police colonel, Tun Oo. “After one person died, the rest of them asked us to give them an amnesty, but we told them we will not do it.”

State media reported that about 130 aid workers, both foreign and Burmese, were forced to seek police protection and flee Sittwe by airplane last month.

A government investigation commission into the riots concluded that the Malteser International employee accused of mishandling the Buddhist flag did nothing wrong. The commission said misinformation about the flag incident had been used to incite rioting against NGOs, who are regularly accused by ethnic Arakanese Buddhists of bias toward Rohingya.

The rioting also coincided with Burma’s UN-backed national census, which Arakanese Buddhists feared would allow Rohingya to identify their own ethnicity. In the event, the government declared that Rohingya, who are accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, were only allowed to take part in the census if they agreed to identify themselves as “Bengali.”

The UN, United States and European Union have all condemned the attacks and voiced concern over the change to the census methodology.