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Government authorities and police officials say they are taking appropriate measures to ensure the safety of foreigners and Burmese nationals working for the UN and other INGOs in the Arakan State capital, Sittwe, following a bout of violence last week when homes and offices of aid workers were targeted by local mobs.
Burma’s state-run media said on Sunday that 29 foreign nationals working for international agencies had remained in Sittwe as of Saturday.
To date, no details have been forthcoming regarding the arrest of suspected rioters and instigators of the violence despite repeated calls to state authorities by DVB.
No aid workers were injured in the riots which took place last Wednesday and Thursday; however an 11-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet when security forces fired into the air to disperse a mob.
Following the violence, many aid workers took refuge in a local police station or at the Sittwe Hotel. Under a police escort, the majority of foreign aid workers were later taken to the airport and flown to Rangoon.
President Thein Sein has subsequently called for commission to investigate the incidents and also to probe the motives and actions of Arakan State government officials.
Sittwe MP Aung Myat Kyaw said he concurred with the president’s decision, noting that “there were weaknesses in the state government’s handling of the situation”.
The newly formed Rakhine Investigation Commission is to be headed by Deputy Minister of Border Affairs Brig-Gen Maung Maung Ohn and will comprise of five members. Thein Sein has instructed the Commission to submit a report to him by 7 April.
The Burmese government has declared that 29 houses, seven warehouses and two vehicles were destroyed in the 26-27 March attacks.
The violence flared on Wednesday evening when a foreign NGO staff member, working for Germany-based Malteser International, was accused by local Arakanese of disrespecting a Buddhist flag. A mob quickly grew and began shouting and throwing stones, smashing windows at her residence.
However, in an exclusive interview on Sunday with DVB in Rangoon, the Malteser International staffer in question, Yvonne Dunton, denied she had acted improperly.
She said that the Buddhist flag had been placed on the organisation’s warehouse property as a mark of political support for a local boycott against the national census.
“I decided to take the flag down because we are a humanitarian organisation, and we must remain neutral and impartial in this situation,” she said. “When I took down the flag, I took it down from the stick and folded it, and put it into the basket of my bicycle. But then I noticed that, despite the darkness, people in the neighbourhood saw me do this, and they came and asked me: ‘What is going on?’”
Dunton said the warehouse owner arrived and insisted the flag be put back up, at which point she gave it to him. She said the number of people at the scene was increasing, and the situation was “getting very tense”. She said she decided to leave and cycled back to her residence, but was followed. Dunton said she attempted to pacify the crowd by explaining to them but they would not listen, and after she locked herself inside her house the mob began to shout and smash the windows.
Malteser International spokesperson Johannes Kaltenbach backed Dunton, saying she was sensitive to local culture.
“She did not disrespect the flag in any way,” he said in an interview with DVB.
Kaltenbach suggested that the riot was not spontaneous and showed signs of being orchestrated.
On Monday, Reuters reported that Muslim Rohingyas could face food shortages due to the evacuation of aid workers and the ransacking of warehouses storing rice and food supplies.
“With the departure of the aid workers, the supply chain has been disrupted,” the report said. “Merchants say anti-Muslim Rakhine ethnic groups have ordered them not to trade with the IDPs [internally displaced persons] and threatened to take retaliatory action if they do.”
The instability has affected the price of rice in Sittwe.
“This morning the price of rice rose from 15,000 kyats (US$15) to 18,000 kyats per bag. And then by late afternoon it was 20,000 kyats to 25,000 kyats depending on the rice quality. The price of other food products like salt, oil, chilli and onions are going up too,” Hla Maung, a 40-year-old Muslim IDP, was quoted as saying by Reuters.