RANGOON — Arakan State authorities will not let Malteser International return to the region to resume aid operations, a state official said, after the rumored improper handling of a Buddhist flag by a Malteser employee sparked attacks on United Nations and international NGO offices last week.
The riots by Arakanese Buddhist mobs damaged offices, storage facilities and transport vehicles, and forced more than 170 aid workers, local and foreign, to flee the state capital Sittwe, bringing aid operations that provided vital support for more than 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya, to an end.
Arakan State spokesman Win Myaing told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that aid groups “could come back here to work if they still have a MOU agreement period.”
He added, “But, for Malteser International, we will not let them come back or give them an extension of the MOU because the local people have protested against them for some time.”
Win Myaing hung up on a reporter when asked to further clarify the reasons for the decision.
On Wednesday, he told BBC Burmese radio service that local Arakanese Buddhists had protested against Malteser International and Médicine Sans Frontièrs (MSF) Holland before, out of anger over the groups’ aid support for the Rohingya Muslim minority in northern Arakan.
Burma’s government suspended MSF operations in February in response to recurrent local protests and out of anger over statements MSF made over the alleged killings of scores of Rohingya by government forces.
“Local people have asked our government not to give further extension of their [Malteser] MOU during a previous protest in front of their office. We met them to solve tensions with the locals. This time they take down the flag, which is another problem. [So] we will not let them come back,” he told the BBC.
An employee of Malteser International removed a Buddhist flag from a building that the organization was renting in Sittwe. Shortly afterwards, rumors spread that she had handled the flag disrespectfully—a claim Malteser has denied. The allegations proved an excuse for Buddhist mobs to attack aid offices.
Johannes Kaltenbach, a spokesperson for Malteser International in Rangoon, said the organization had not heard of the decision by Arakan authorities to end the group’s aid operations in the troubled region.
Kaltenbach said Arakan State authorities had not informed the group of its decision. “We would first need to see an official letter signed by the Rakine State government,” he said, adding that international NGOs were trying to discussing their cooperation with the Arakan government in order to return to the region.
“For the Rakine State government to make such press statement, probably will not help the situation,” he said.
Kaltenbach added that Malteser and other international NGOs working in Arakan State would meet tomorrow with a government’s commission that was set up to investigate the unrest.
The UN has kept about 50 staff in Sittwe but all international NGO staff have left.
A delegation of the heads of all UN offices in Burma met with local authorities in Sittwe on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss a return of the NGO and resumption of aid operations.
“[N]ow health services for most of the 140,000 displaced people in Rakhine and over 700,000 vulnerable people outside camps are severely hampered, particularly in terms of life-saving emergency medical referrals,” Dr Liviu Vedrasco, Health Cluster Coordinator for the World Health Organization said in a UN statement released Wednesday night.
“Our main priority now is to work with the government to put the necessary conditions in place to allow more than a thousand humanitarian staff to get back to work to assist vulnerable people from all communities,” UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Renata Dessallien said.
The UN said 1,300 metric tons of food will need to be distributed in Arakan State within the next two weeks in order to provide food security for tens of thousands of people.
On Thursday, the US State Department called on Naypyidaw to take steps to assure that aid operations can restart in Arakan State as soon as possible.
Deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said, “We call on the Burmese government to rescind travel restrictions and to facilitate the appropriate travel authorizations to the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations so they may resume services.”
The State Department also said the government should implement the current nationwide census “in a manner consistent with international standards.”
Last week’s unrest in Sittwe was in part fueled by opposition among the Arakanese Buddhist population against the UN-backed census because it would allow Rohingya respondents to fill in their ethnicity as they wish.
Burma’s government and local Arakanese insist the Muslims are “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh. When the census began on Sunday, Naypyidaw had changed its stance on the census and decided to ignore any respondent who self-identifies as Rohingya.