The European Union and the United States expressed “deep concern” on Thursday evening after mobs of Arakanese Buddhists attacked homes and offices of humanitarian aid workers in the capital of Burma’s western Arakan State.
Seventy-one aid workers, who provide essential health and other services, have been evacuated; some were flown to Rangoon while others remain under police protection in Sittwe.
“We are very concerned by the wave of hostilities targeting international organisations which provide essential assistance to local communities and the most vulnerable in the Rakhine [Arakan] State of Myanmar,” read a joint statement by Kristalina Georgieva, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, and Andris Piebalgs, EU Commissioner for Development.
“We call upon the people of Sittwe, and the Rakhine State, to co-operate fully with the competent authorities in order to restore the safety of relief workers and the security of international assistance operations.”
Similarly, the US Embassy in Rangoon issued a press statement denouncing the “lack of adequate security forces and rule of law on the ground in Sittwe, and Rakhine State more broadly, to prevent the outbreak and spread of violence and to protect aid workers, their offices, and other vulnerable populations in the area.”
On Wednesday night, mobs of Arakanese Buddhists gathered around the offices of Malteser International, a Germany-based NGO that provides humanitarian aid, after hearing that a foreign staff member removed a Buddhist flag from the balcony of the building. The crowd began throwing stones at the building, which broke windows and caused other damage to the property.
“All windows were smashed with rocks,” Malteser’s country coordinator, Johannes Kaltenbach, told DVB on Thursday, a day after the initial incident.
Kaltenbach said that as the violence escalated, staff fled the premises and sought police protection, while the mob moved on to other humanitarian aid offices, which received “the same treatment”.
The crowd was eventually dispersed by security forces, who fired warning shots into the air. Local media has reported that an 11-year old girl was fatally injured by a stray bullet, though this has not been independently confirmed.
Rioting continued the following morning, and by late afternoon all aid workers in the town had fled their homes and offices, our sources said.
UN aid agencies such as UNICEF and UNOCHA, as well as the World Food Programme, were also targeted in what rights defenders say is a larger movement against all international aid in the state, which over the past two years has suffered several rounds of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims, the latter bearing most of the damages.
Several demonstrations against aid workers in the region illustrate the widespread distrust of foreign aid workers, which many Arakanese believe are favouring Muslims. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was recently evicted from the state after a series of targeted protests. President’s spokesperson Ye Htut told DVB at the time that MSF’s activities were “fuelling tensions and are detrimental to the rule of law” in the area.
“Arakanese Buddhist animus towards Muslims has reached fever-point,” said David Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, “and seeing as the violence of 2012 cleansed central Sittwe of Muslims the mobs are taking it out on international aid workers erroneously cast as only assisting Rohingya.”
International voices have thus far been unanimous in denouncing the Burmese authorities for weak protection of humanitarian aid workers and vulnerable populations in Arakan State.
“The international community has to stand together and condemn these attacks against humanitarian agencies, as they should have done when MSF’s operations were suspended, and demand the national government take all measures to ensure the safety and integrity of humanitarian operations or abrogate its responsibilities as a rational government,” said Mathieson.