U.S. and U.N. call on Myanmar to curb violence against aid groups

Protesters in Rakhine’s state capital, Sittwe, call for Médecins Sans Frontières to leave on February 22, 2014

The U.S. and the United Nations are urging the Myanmar government to ensure the security of aid workers after two days of mob violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state [where the Muslim Rohingya live].

Thousands of Buddhist protesters gathered around the separate offices of German-based medical aid group Malteser International and of Médecins Sans Frontières in Sittwe, the state capital, Wednesday and Thursday, authorities said.

The mob, witnesses said, hurled stones at the homes of several foreign aid workers and at the offices, using sticks to break windows of these buildings. Police were forced to fire warning shots in the air to disperse the crowd.

Attempts to contact the aid agencies were not successful.

A curfew, already in effect since communal violence rocked this tense region in mid-2012, has been extended and is now in place from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

“Now the township is silent, because of the curfew,” said San Thar Aung, a Buddhist resident in Sittwe, who said the mob at its peak was as large as 3,000 people. Security officials, including soldiers and police, are continuing to patrol the town, he said.

Win Myaing, spokesperson for the state government, said Thursday that an estimated four houses were destroyed but that the government was still trying to assess the full scale of the damage. No injuries or deaths were reported.

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Protestors take part in a demonstration against Myanmar’s forthcoming nationwide census in Rakhine on March 16.

The U.S. Embassy issued a statement saying that at least three Americans and other international aid workers were relocated for their safety. The Embassy was “deeply concerned” about the “continued lack of adequate security forces and rule of law” in Sittwe and across Rakhine state, where majority Buddhist and minority Muslims live almost completely segregated.

Tolly Kurbanov, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, said in a statement that the U.N. and partners “remain determined to continue providing life-saving humanitarian assistance” and called on the Myanmar government to protect aid workers.

This violence is the latest setback in what aid groups say is a growing struggle to offer critical development assistance in the state, Myanmar’s second-least developed. Aid groups have increasingly complained that staff are subject to intimidation, harassment and threats from Buddhist residents while delivering aid the Muslim Rohingya population.

Since violent riots first erupted in 2012, more than 140,000 have been displaced, mostly Muslims. Confined to camps and shut off from the largely Buddhist population, Muslims in Rakhine live almost completely dependent on relief groups for their survival.

Even once-integrated districts like the Aung Mingalar ward in Sittwe, where Muslims once mingled and worked alongside Buddhists, are now guarded by strict checkpoints with a myriad of armed police, immigration officers and border guards, closely monitoring movements of foreigners and the town’s Muslim population.

Buddhists in Rakhine state say that they fear that the Muslim population—about a quarter of the state’s population, higher here than the 4% national average—threatens to overwhelm them, and Buddhists accuse aid agencies of helping the Muslims more than Buddhists. The agencies say that they do not favor anyone.

The United Nations’ statement on Thursday following the most recent eruption of violence added that “any reduction of humanitarian presence could negatively affect the protection of vulnerable people.”

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