RANGOON — A commission established by the Burmese government to investigate mob attacks on the premises of international nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations in Sittwe last month has criticized the Arakan State authorities for their weak handling of the incident.
A statement in Burma’s state-run newspapers on Wednesday said the commission had concluded that a foreign aid worker had not mishandled a Buddhist flag, despite rumors to the contrary that became the pretext for large-scale riots and destruction of property.
“It will not be allowed to happen again and the security authorities will focus on doing more capacity building for security forces,” the statement said. “The state government failed to take action as soon as the conflict broke out. [The commission] found that the state government’s response was weak and failed to stop the mob attacks.”
Win Myaing, spokesman for the Arakan State government, declined to respond to the criticism. “They [the commission] have written what they found through their investigation. For me, I do not have anything to criticize from their statement,” said Win Myaing.
The attacks came on March 26-27 as Arakanese Buddhists were protesting against the Rohingya Muslim minority being allowed to take part in the nationwide census.
A 13-year-old Arakanese Buddhist girl was killed by a stray bullet when police fired warning shots to disperse the mob. The violence also led to an exodus of aid workers from Sittwe, raising humanitarian concerns for tens of thousands of people displaced by inter-communal violence since mid-2012. Medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières had already been forced to leave the state and basic supplies to some camps have been effectively cut off.
The commission’s statement said the government was working with the Arakan State government so that aid groups can return to the state.
Members of the commission—which was formed March 28 and led by Gen Maung Maung Ohn—visited Sittwe and talked to NGOs and local people. The report said the attacks caused US$430,000 of damage, with 14 NGO offices, 16 houses, 15 warehouses, 14 vehicles, 2 boats, 29 motorbikes and office furniture damaged.
The violence was sparked by an employee of aid group Malteser International removing a Buddhist flag from the group’s offices and allegedly mishandling it. Buddhist flags were displayed in protest to the government’s pledge, on which it later reneged, that Rohingya would be allowed to self-identify their ethnicity in the UN-backed census.
The commission agreed with an earlier statement from Malteser International saying that the employee, Yvonne Dunton, had simply removed the flag from the building in line with the organization’s policy of political neutrality, and did not do anything inappropriate with it. The commission said information about the incident had been dishonestly spread in order to instigate the riots that followed.
“Her action did not violate the law by taking down the flag,” said commission’s statement. “But, tensions got high when some people campaigned and provided wrong information to the local people.”
Khin Maung Gyi, a senior leader from Rakhine National Party (RNP), said that most people in Sittwe believed that the foreign woman did mishandle the religious flag, despite the investigation’s findings.
“It is true our people were not happy about her disrespecting the flag. And also, it is true our people are not happy with NGOs based here because they don’t have transparency in giving aid,” said Khin Maung Gyi, referring to the accusation that international NGOs favor the Rohingya over Arakanese Buddhists.
The Arakan State government has said 12 suspects have been arrested for the attacks, including a central committee member of the RNP.