BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A foreign aid worker who removed a Buddhist flag from a building did not desecrate it, but agitators used the action as an excuse for frenzied attacks on the premises of the United Nations and aid organisations in western Myanmar two weeks ago, a commission investigating the riots said.
Despite this conclusion, the Rakhine State government told Thomson Reuters Foundation that the aid worker’s employer, relief agency Malteser International, would not be allowed to resume its work when aid groups forced to flee the violence returned later this month.
A rumour about the desecration of a Buddhist flag spread in the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe, on March 27, and some 400 rioters gathered outside Malteser’s office there, throwing stones at it before attacking other buildings and properties owned by aid groups and the United Nations.
Rioting broke out again the following day and an 11-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet when police fired warning shots.
In a statement published on Wednesday in the state-run Myanma Alinn Daily, the commission, set up by the government, said the female aid worker simply removed the flag from the building in line with Malteser’s policy of political neutrality.
"While her action did not break the law, the locals’ incorrect opinions towards international organisations worsened because of instigators who spread incorrect information," the statement said.
The commission also criticised the state authorities, saying their “sluggish response” resulted in damage to 14 offices, 16 homes, 15 warehouses, 14 vehicles and boats, motorcycles and office equipment valued at $43,000.
Aid agencies have warned that a humanitarian crisis is brewing in Rakhine, where food and water for tens of thousands of displaced people in camps will soon run out as a result of the evacuation of humanitarian workers after the riots.
One month before the riots, the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was expelled from Rakhine. Local media said state authorities were angered by its comments about an alleged January massacre of stateless Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine. Myanmar’s government denies any killing took place.
PROMISE TO PROVIDE SECURITY
Some members of the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist community have long accused aid groups of favouring the Rohingya, who make up the vast majority of victims of violence that has displaced more than 140,000 since June 2012. Aid groups deny the accusations and many say their workers have been threatened and intimidated.
Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens and says they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
A short announcement in the English-language daily The New Light of Myanmar said the government would “expose the ringleaders and others involved in the riots” and take serious action.
The government will provide aid groups with “full security services and will cooperate with them on all levels,” it added.
“I welcome the Government’s assurances that the safety and security of humanitarian staff will be significantly improved and urge that the same be ensured for all communities in Rakhine State,” Renata Dessallien, the U.N. resident coordinator in Myanmar, said in a statement on Thursday.
“The international humanitarian operations were hit hard and I am very concerned about the impact that the disruption of critical life-saving services is having on the (internally displaced persons) and other vulnerable communities we serve,” she added.
NO RETURN FOR MSF, MALTESER
The flag the aid worker was accused of mishandling had been displayed in protest against Myanmar’s first census in 30 years, which ends on Friday.
While "Rohingya" is not listed on the census form, people had the option to check "other" and ask enumerators to fill in their ethnicity. Some Rakhine Buddhists threatened to boycott the census, concerned that it could lead to official recognition for the Rohingya.
After the riots, the government backtracked on its commitment to let Rohingya identify themselves as such on the census form, prompting a rebuke from the United Nations.
The Rakhine State government told Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday that arrangements were being made to allow aid groups to resume their operations later this month, but did not give a date.
“MSF and Malteser will not be allowed (to return),” said Than Tun, a member of the Emergency Coordination Committee set up after the riots. “The former is banned by the government while the latter created the spark (for the latest violence). We are worried the activities of these groups can affect others who are doing their job properly,” he added.