The United Nations’ top official in Burma said he welcomed the release last week of aid workers detained since violence broke out in Arakan State in June, but urged the government to free others still behind bars.
At a ceremony marking World Humanitarian Day on Sunday, Ashok Nigam, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Burma, thanked the government for releasing the aid workers last Thursday, but noted that “some other UN and INGO staff … are still under detention.”
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday, the UN’s chief spokesperson in Rangoon, Aye Win, declined to say how many UN and international aid agency staff had been released and how many remain behind bars, saying that a number of cases are still in court.
According to Myo Thant, a spokesperson for the Arakan State government, five aid workers—two from the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR and three from the Dutch NGO Artsen Zonder Grenzen (AZG)—were released from prison in Sittwe and Buthidaung, respectively, last week.
However, local sources in Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Sittwe said that a total of nine had been freed, including five from the UNHCR, two from AZG and two from the UN’s World Food Program (WFP).
Sources in Maungdaw said that UNHCR staffer Cho Lay Mar Khar Ton and two WFP employees had been released from the Nasaka Border Security Force’s Kyikanpyin Camp after being taken there from Maungdaw Prison.
The sources, who are close to the court in Maungdaw, said that the three had been charged with instigating riots under Sections 153, 147 and 505 (b) of Burma’s Penal Code, but were released under orders of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a lawyer from Sittwe told The Irrawaddy that two AZG employees—Kyaw Hla Aung, who was arrested under Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code, and Win Naing, who was arrested under Section 5 (j)—were among those released last Thursday.
Among those still in detention are Dr Htun Aung (aka) Nu Hauk, who remains in prison in Sittwe. He faces six charges, including instigating a riot and fraud, stemming from a request he made with the local authorities on June 8 to hold a gathering to pray for 10 Muslims killed by an Arakanese mob in Taunggok on June 3. Despite his assurances that the gathering would not result in violence, a riot broke out on the same day and Htun Aung was later arrested.
Several of the released NGO workers were reportedly taken into custody because of their alleged connections to Htun Aung, who is a local religious leader.
Htun Aung’s daughter Mya Nandar Aung was also temporarily detained on June 10 after she was found in possession of “suspicious documents” at Sittwe airport. She was later charged in Rangoon’s Mingala Taung Nyunt Township and now faces trial. She met with the UN human rights expert Tomas Ojea Quintana during his latest visit to Burma.
Meanwhile, Burma’s government on Saturday launched an inquiry into the violence that broke out in early June. The investigation will be carried out by a team that includes both Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders.
A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the move could create a “conducive environment for a more inclusive way forward to tackle the underlying causes of the violence, including the condition of the Muslim communities in [Arakan State].”