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Burma’s Ministry of Home Affairs said that it will conduct an investigation into the violence which broke out in Sittwe late on Wednesday night and again on Thursday, resulting in the ransacking and destruction of houses and offices rented by international aid organisations and the subsequent evacuation of 71 aid workers, including 32 foreigners, to a local police station.
According to state-run The New Light of Myanmar on Friday, the violence was sparked when local residents observed a foreign staffer at Malteser International, a Germany-based NGO which operates health care and disaster relief services in the area, removing a Buddhist flag which had been placed outside the organisation’s office.
“In the first incident on March 26 at around 8:30pm, around 50 locals surrounded a facility rented by the humanitarian organisation Malteser International, hurling stones at the house,” the report said, adding that the crowd dispersed around 11:30pm after local authorities and Buddhist monks intervened.
The state-run newspaper said that the Malteser aid worker accused of disrespecting the religious flag, programme coordinator Yvonne Dunton, and her husband fled the premises and were later escorted to a police guest house after a crowd grew and demanded she be handed over.
However, Malteser International spokesperson Johannes Kaltenbach rejected accusations that the staffer in question disrespected 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 anyway.”
The New Light reported that, subsequently, around 300 people gathered and destroyed the offices and residences of international aid organisations, including Malteser International and Médecins Sans Frontières.
Another international staffer who asked to remain anonymous confirmed to DVB that the offices of UNICEF and UNOCHA were also attacked.
State media said that on Thursday morning a crowd formed around the offices of the Red Cross. Security forces dispersed the crowd by firing warning shots.
“The office of UNHCR was attacked the same day in Sittwe by a mob which hurled stones, with the [UN]OCHA office and a garage used by the WFP [World Food Programme] also targeted. Security forces fired 15 warning shots,” state-run media said.
However, it has since been reported by BBC Burmese that an 11-year-old girl, standing on a balcony, was hit by a bullet in the melee. Local media has reported that she later died in hospital.