Foreign aid workers in Arakan State capital Sittwe are currently “huddled” at a local police station after a mob began attacking homes and offices of several international NGOs in the town on Wednesday night and again on Thursday morning, Malteser International spokesperson Johannes Kaltenbach has confirmed to DVB.
Another international source said that the offices of UNICEF and UNOCHA had been attacked and that rioters had entered the buildings.
According to Rakhine Nationalities Development Party MP Pe Than, the mob violence flared after a foreign female NGO worker removed a Buddhist flag from the front of the office and placed it in her pocket, which was interpreted by some locals as disrespectful because of the flag’s proximity to her lower body.
The incident was quickly linked to a Malteser International employee. However, Kaltenbach said that the staffer in question did not disrespect the Buddhist flag.
“The disturbance started in relation to a protest against the census in which protestors were required to fly Buddhist flags,” he told DVB on Thursday afternoon. “Our housekeeper flew one of these flags at our office which the programme coordinator removed later, at about 6 or 6:30pm in accordance with our policy of no religious or political insignia. She did not disrespect the flag in any way.”
He said that around two hours later, a mob of about 50 people arrived at the Malteser office and began shouting. That crowd subsequently grew and became increasingly more threatening.
“All our windows were smashed with rocks, and equipment was destroyed,” said Kaltenbach. “Solidarity International also evacuated their office, which got the same treatment.”
Kaltenbach said that the situation was very worrying and difficult to make sense of because of a lack of available information.
“I would like to stress that this is a broader issue of antagonism towards INGOs, not an isolated response to the flag incident,” he said.
Meanwhile, DVB has been told by local MP Aung Myat Kyaw that a curfew has been imposed in Sittwe from 6pm to 6am starting on Thursday, and that a ban on assemblies of more than five persons has been imposed.