Two local staff members of an international aid nongovernmental organization detained during the height of ethnic violence in western Burma’s Rakhine state were released Thursday amid easing tensions, but several more aid workers continue to languish in detention.
The release came as the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said it would raise at the U.N. the issue of Burma’s discrimination against Muslim Rohingyas, who are denied citizenship and not recognized as an ethnic group in the country.
Long-standing resentment between the minority Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines erupted into bloody violence in June that left dozens of people dead and tens of thousands displaced. Several U.N. and NGO workers were also held in connection with violence.
On Thursday, authorities in the Rakhine capital of Sittwe released Doctors Without Borders employees Kyaw Hla Aung and Win Naing after charging them with fueling unrest.
“I was charged with Article 505 [of Burma’s Penal Code] for inciting unrest, while Win Naing was charged with instigating conflict by showing people photos of violence in Taungoke township,” Kyaw Hla Aung, 73, administrator for the organization’s Rakhine branch, said shortly after his release.
Three other aid workers held in Buthidaung township were released at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday.
U.N. officials have said that some dozen aid workers, including several U.N. staff members as well as World Food Programme and Doctors Without Borders employees, were detained in connection with the Rakhine unrest.
Border Affairs Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Htay has said some of the aid workers were accused of “setting fire to villages” and taking part in the clashes.
Before his detention, Kyaw Hla Aung was accused of being linked to an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group and his home was raided by an unknown group searching for evidence against him.
“An hour or two before I was arrested, my home was raided. I don’t know by whom. All my papers and documents were scattered outside my house,” he said.
He escaped with his family to a nearby mosque, but was apprehended there later.
“They said I had links to Al Qaeda,” he said, referring to the global terror network that masterminded the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.
He said he told the authorities that he had no interest in such activities and that through his NGO work he has supported ethnic groups living peacefully together in Rakhine.
Burmese authorities were under pressure to release Kyaw Hla Aung and other aid workers by the U.N. and rights groups.
The day before his release, he said, the authorities told him his freedom was authorized by President Thein Sein.
“I’m very thankful to the president,” he said, but added that he thought the government had failed to contain the violence.
“The government must do something to resolve this problem, or else the two groups will continue to be in conflict,” he said.
This week, local authorities in Rakhine eased curfews in in Kyauktaw township affected by fresh clashes just weeks ago.
In Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, which saw the brunt of the violence in June, the curfew has been reduced by one hour, while in other townships such as Minbya and Mrauk Oo that were only recently put under curfew, the lockdown has been cut by five hours, the Irrawaddy online journal reported Thursday.
The entire state has been under emergency rule since early June with a heavy army and police presence.
Rights groups claim the government did little to stop the violence initially and then turned its security forces on the Rohingya with targeted killings, rapes, mass arrests, and torture.
Both the Rakhines and the Rohingyas have been blamed for sparking violence, but human rights groups say the minority Rohingya, who are discriminated against and considered outsiders in Burma, bore the brunt of action by Burmese security forces.
The plight of the Rohingya, whom the U.N. considers one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, was taken up by the OIC at its annual summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia this week, with the group announcing Thursday that it will take its concerns about the Rohingya to the U.N.
"The summit has decided to bring this matter before the General Assembly of the United Nations," the group said in a final statement.
It condemned "the continued recourse to violence by the Myanmar [Burmese] authorities against the members of this minority and their refusal to recognize their right to citizenship" even though they have lived in the Southeast Asian country for generations.
The announcement comes after the Burmese government gave rare approval to a visit by an OIC team to Rakhine.
In what is seen as a conciliatory move, Thein Sein has agreed to allow the OIC to deliver "urgent aid" to displaced Rohingyas, the Islamic bloc said over the weekend.
Muslim groups particularly had been outraged by Thein Sein’s comments saying the Rohingya had no place in Burma and calling on the U.N.’s refugee agency to place them in refugee camps or help them be resettled in a third country .
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Win Naing. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.