Last week, violence broke out in Arakan state’s capital Sittwe. The violence kicked off when local residents observed a foreign staffer of humanitarian NGO Malteser International, remove a flag from outside their offices.
Houses and offices of international aid organisations were ransacked and 71 aid workers, including 32 foreigners, were evacuated.
Spokesperson for Malteser International, Johannes Kaltenbach, spoke to DVB about why he thinks a mob of Buddhist Arakanese turned on humanitarian workers in Sittwe last Wednesday.
“I definitely don’t think that this event was related to Malteser staff mistreating a Buddhist flag,” Kaltenbach said. “I think this is more a side-event; maybe the groups were waiting for something to grab on to so they could start.”
Kaltenbach said the crowd seemed organised and suggests because of this the subsequent ransacking of aid offices could not have been a spontaneous act.
“Immediately it was a very large group. It expanded the next day over town. [It was] very organised as if they had a list with addresses where they could go,” he said.
“It was actually [felt] in some cases very structured. So that for us makes it highly impossible that this is a spontaneous act of inflamed people in revenge [for] one of our staff members.”
Kaltenbach said the programme coordinator, who took down the flag, was a very experienced member of staff and knew to be respectful of local culture.
“She has been doing this kind of work for decades. Malteser International and our staff are well aware of the local culture. So all these rumours that are flying around that our staff member had worn the flag as a skirt or used it as a piece of clothing, from the info we have, is not true,” he said.
“Actually that flag was returned to the owner. Indeed, it was taken down politely, because it is our principle as a humanitarian organisation not to display any religious or political symbols whatsoever.”
However Kaltenbach said at that point the damage had already been done.
“The people on the ground were so tense that they had perceived probably any touching of the flag as an insult.”
Kaltenbach said Malteser International has good relations with the local community.
“I would like to add that Malteser International have been in Myanmar [Burma] since 2001. We have very good relations with communities wherever we work. It is very important to us because it is the core of our work,” he said.
“We are not here for ourselves. We are actually here for the communities.”
“We also have good relations with the Ministry for Health who have been supportive so far, and we have great respect for the local culture here,” he said.
Malteser International is a relief agency of the Sovereign Order of Malta for humanitarian aid. They provide emergency relief after disasters and support recovery efforts in 25 countries worldwide.