Soldiers, police patrol streets in western Myanmar

AP News
Posted: Mar 28, 2014 12:07 PM

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Soldiers and police patrolled streets in western Myanmar and surveyed the damage Friday after Buddhist mobs attacked offices and homes of international aid workers, forcing the relocation of almost all staff from the troubled state of Rakhine.

An 11-year-old girl was killed when police fired into the air to disperse crowds on the second day of rioting Thursday, state TV reported, and at least one other person was slightly wounded.

Twenty-nine houses, seven warehouses and two motor vehicles — all in the state capital, Sittwe — were damaged, it said.

Paula Schriefer, head of the U.S. delegation to the Human Rights Council, called on the government to hold accountable those responsible.

"It is long overdue for the government of U Thein Sein to take the decisive action necessary to prevent these acts, address the core problems in Rakhine state, including the continued lack of adequate security forces and rule of law on the ground, and create conditions for sustainable peace and development," she said in a statement.

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million, emerged from a half-century of military rule in 2011. But newfound freedoms of expression that accompanied its transition to democracy have given voice to religious hatred, causing violence that has left up to 280 people dead and sent another 240,000 fleeing their homes.

Most of the victims have been members of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.

Aid groups that have been providing care for those now living in crowded camps — where they have little access to food, education or health care — have for months faced threats and intimidation by ethnic Buddhists in Rakhine, hampering their ability to work.

The violence Wednesday and Thursday made it impossible.

"As for now, no aid services are functioning in the region. If humanitarian aid cannot be restarted quickly, this will have a severe impact on the ground," said Ingo Radtke, secretary-general of Malteser International, which estimated that 90 percent of all aid groups in Sittwe had been targeted.

"We are very concerned that the riots might also spread to neighboring district."

Police escorted aid workers from their homes for safety reasons, placing dozens under protection, Sittwe resident Aung Than said by phone. Other aid groups said they were evacuating all local and foreign non-essential staff, some on regularly scheduled flights, others on charters.

Tun Tha, another resident contacted by phone, said the situation was calm Friday, thanks in part to a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. Soldiers and police were patrolling the streets, he said. Win Myaing, the state spokesman, said several people were being questioned in connection with the rioting.

Local Rakhine residents have in recent months staged several protests against international non-governmental groups, accusing them of showing favoritism to tens of thousands of Rohingya in camps for the displaced. Many Western aid workers started leaving days ago for security reasons.

Last month, the government stopped the Nobel Peace Prize-winning aid group Doctors Without Borders from working in the state altogether, in part because it had hired Rohingya.

It had been providing care to more than 700,000 people statewide.

As part of the anti-Rohingya campaign, Buddhist flags have been placed in front of almost every house and office in Sittwe in recent days.

On Wednesday the tensions exploded, sparked by reports that an American woman had removed one of those flags from in front of the Malteser International office and then held it near her hip as she carried it away, an act that was interpreted as a deep insult.

The 300 people who surrounded the building dispersed only after police fired dozens of rounds of warning shots into the air, state spokesman Win Myaing said.

The violence continued Thursday, with more than 1,000 people running through a street that houses international aid workers, throwing rocks at homes and damaging several of the residences. OXFAM, the World Lutheran Foundation and the World Food Program were among those targeted.