RANGOON — Presidential spokesman Ye Htut has said that international aid workers supporting communities in strife-torn Arakan State should be more sensitive to local customs, after a rumor that an aid worker improperly handled a Buddhist flag sparked attacks on the Sittwe offices of foreign aid organizations last week.
The medical aid organization Malteser International, whose employee stands accused of handling the flag in a disrespectful way, denies any wrongdoing.
Speaking on the sidelines of a meeting between President Thein Sein and political party leaders on Saturday, Ye Htu said, “People, both local and foreigners, working at international organizations should have a good understanding and be aware of local culture, customs and sensitive issues of the places where they are working.”
Last Wednesday, a Malteser International staffer removed a Buddhist flag from a building that the organization was renting as medicine warehouse in Sittwe. Some Arakanese Buddhist residents claim to have witnessed the foreign woman tuck the flag in the pocket of her pants—a move that would have been offensive to Buddhists, who believe that religious objects should not touch the lower part of the body.
The allegations swirled through Sittwe town and quickly proved an excuse for the residents to attack all international aid offices, while some mobs also went in search of the private residences of foreign staffers in order to try to break into their homes. Aid workers were brought to safety and stayed at Sittwe police station.
“It’s true that she took down the religious flag but, if whether she improperly handled the flag is still controversial,” Ye Htut said, adding that the aid worker should have explained to the Arakanese landlord that Malteser International does not allow religious or political symbols on its offices.
“What happened is the consequence of the fact that she wasn’t aware of the sensitive issue in the area,” he said, before adding, “[But] people shouldn’t attack an organization just because of an act by one of its staff.”
“Now they responded in their own ways that lead to unnecessary consequences that damaged the country and its people,” Ye Htut said.
Most Sittwe residents have put up Buddhist flags to signal their boycott of the UN-backed census, which they reject because it would allow Rohingya Muslims to self-identify their ethnicity, in accordance with international standards.
Malteser International on Friday denied its staffer had made any mistake, adding that the flag was an expression of political and ethnic partisanship and was therefore removed from its office building.
“[A]bsolute ethnic and political neutrality of our work is our highest priority … That is the reason why our program coordinator has removed the Buddhist flag which – in the local context – might be seen as a symbol for a political positioning,” Ingo Radtke, Secretary General of Malteser International, said in a statement
“She did not act in any degrading manner or express any cultural misconduct. As she noticed the population’s disapproval, she has immediately handed over the flag to the owner of the warehouse.”
Last week’s violence prompted President Thein Sein to set up a five-member investigation team led by the deputy minister for border affairs, state-owned media reported. The team will question staffers from international organizations and local people as well the Arakan State government about the violence, Ye Htut said. The findings must be sent to the president by April 7.
“So far no one has been arrested yet as security forces prioritized taking care of dispersing the mob and controlling the violence. But we have video footage and pictures of people involved. So the commission could find anyone involved,” he said Saturday.
“We roughly know that the people involved were not from Sittwe but from villages nearby,” he added.
Offices, residences and a warehouse of nine UN and international NGOs were destroyed by Arakanese mobs on Wednesday and Thursday, and 147 aid workers, both foreign and local, were forced to flee Sittwe, state-owned newspaper The Mirror reported. Aid organizations, which use Sittwe as their hub for aid programs in northern Arakan, were forced to shut down aid operations.
An 11-year-old Arakanese girl was killed by a stray bullet after police fired warning shots to disperse a mob attacking an office building on Thursday.
Sittwe’s predominantly Buddhist community is virulently anti-Rohingya—a stateless, impoverished Muslim minority living in northern Arakan State—and oppose any international humanitarian aid support for the group, which suffers from malnutrition and a range of other health problems.