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Govt to protect NGOs after ‘sluggish’ response to Sittwe riots

Additional footage from Reuters

Burma’s Union government vowed on Wednesday to protect aid workers in Arakan State, as recommended by a commission tasked with investigating riots in the state capital Sittwe on 26-27 March.

While the investigation remains ongoing, the commission’s interim briefing concluded that the regional government’s response to the violence was “sluggish”.

The Union government responded with a statement pledging full protection to humanitarian aid workers returning to the area.

The statement also committed to the formation of an Assistance Team for Emergency Situations and the arrest and prosecution of those who instigated the riots.

Deputy Minister of Border Affairs Brig-Gen Maung Maung Ohn, chairman of the commission, said in a press briefing on Wednesday that 12 individuals – six male and six female – have already been detained and are under questioning for their role in the incident.

On the night of 26 March, mobs of angry Buddhists convened at the Sittwe office of INGO Malteser International, after rumours began to circulate that a staff member had disrespected a Buddhist flag.

The mob attacked the office, throwing stones and otherwise damaging the property. They then moved on to attack other NGO homes, offices and warehouses.

Security forces fired warning shots into the air to disperse the crowd. An 11 year-old girl died after being struck by a stray bullet.

Rioting continued the following day. Approximately 300 NGO staff members were evacuated from Sittwe as a result of the violence.

Most have not yet returned, causing disruptions to aid distribution and emergency care in displacement camps and rural villages.

The investigation commission found that Yvonne Dunton, the Malteser employee who removed the flag, acted within her duty and without disrespect to local culture, adding that the incident was used as an “excuse” to antagonise aid workers.

The United Nations on Thursday welcomed the commission’s findings, vowing to review their practices in Arakan State and restructure operations if necessary.

Humanitarian aid organisations support food and healthcare programmes for hundreds of thousands of people in Arakan, Burma’s second poorest state.

The disruption of aid distribution and humanitarian access has prompted outrage from the international community, amid fears of a humanitarian disaster due to lack of clean water, food and medical care.

UN Special Rapporteur to Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, on Monday expressed particular concern that stalled services could “increase the vulnerability” of stateless Rohingya Muslims, some 140,000 of whom are currently living in isolated displacement camps throughout northern Arakan State.