International aid workers took refuge in police shelters or left the capital of western Myanmar's Rakhine state Friday after Buddhist mobs attacked offices of foreign nongovernmental organizations in two days of violence that left a 13-year-old girl dead.
The girl was accidentally killed on Thursday when security forces fired warning shots to disperse mobs throwing stones and attempting to destroy the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) warehouse in the Rakhine capital Sittwe, police said.
"Police fired shots and a 13-year old girl named Ne Ma who lives in front of the WFP store got shot in her belly," Khaing Kaung San, head of the Sittwe-based development group Wan Latt Foundation, told RFA's Myanmar Service. "We sent her to hospital, but she died 10 minutes after arrival."
Government television reported that at least one other person was injured and nearly 30 houses, seven warehouses, and two motor vehicles were damaged when mobs of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists went on a rampage beginning late Wednesday, sparked by reports that a staff member of German medical aid group Malteser International had removed a Buddhist flag from its building.
Buddhist flags have been flown across Sittwe in recent days as a symbol of opposition to Rakhine state’s widely despised Rohingya Muslim community, who rights groups say have borne the greatest share of suffering since communal clashes erupted in 2012.
The Rakhines and local authorities have since accused international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) working in the state of giving preferential treatment to the Rohingyas, resulting in further tensions between the two groups.
Malteser said it has temporarily suspended its relief activities in Sittwe and relocated its international staff as well as parts of its national staff to Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital.
“As of now, no aid services are functioning in the region," Malteser Secretary-General Ingo Radtke said in a statement. "If humanitarian aid cannot be restarted quickly, this will have a severe impact on the humanitarian situation on the ground," he said.
More than a dozen foreigners were seen waiting to board a flight at Sittwe's airport on Friday, as many humanitarian organizations temporarily removed their staff from the area to avoid further conflict, Agence France-Presse reported.
The situation was relatively calm Friday as the authorities maintained a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew with security forces patrolling the streets, government officials said.
President Thein Sein's government will conduct an investigation into the circumstances that led to the riots, the Information Ministry said on its website.
"All INGO [international nongovernmental organization] staff, including foreigners, have been sent to stay in police guest houses and security forces are guarding them. We have also arranged flight tickets for those who want to go back to Yangon," Win Myaine, Rakhine state government spokesperson, told RFA.
Asked whether the state government plans to take measures to prevent further violence, he said the Buddhist flag should not have been taken down, suggesting that that action had triggered the riots.
"The flag has been hoisted in many places around the country, especially during religious ceremonies. It is normal and there is no reason for [foreigners] to take down the flag," Win Myaine said.
Last month, medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was expelled from Rakhine following a series of protests, putting the fate of tens of thousands of Rohingya in jeopardy.
Abu Taher, a Rohingya leader and head of the Union Nationals Development Party (UNDP), said it is vital for international aid groups to continue operating in Rakhine as they provide immense help to all groups in the interest of the country.
"If some people or a group try to stop them, it is not in the interest of the people and the country, I think."
On allegations that the aid groups were showing bias to the Rohingyas, Abu Taher said, "They would provide more help to those in dire need and less help to those who are less troubled. I don’t think this is unfair."
He said that the government bears responsibility for rebuilding the trust between the aid groups and the Rakhine people.
"The government has a responsibility as well because these INGOs and the government have signed MOUs."
The violence in Sittwe on Thursday saw more than 1,000 people running through a street that houses international aid workers, throwing rocks at homes and damaging several of the residences, the Associated Press reported. OXFAM and the World Lutheran Foundation were also among aid groups targeted.
The United Nations condemned the violence and so did the United States, whose three citizens were among aid workers given "emergency relocation." Washington questioned the inability of Myanmar’s security forces to stop the spread of the riots.
Paula Schriefer, head of the U.S. delegation to the Human Rights Council, called on the government to hold accountable those responsible.
"It is long overdue for the government of U [honorific] Thein Sein to take the decisive action necessary to prevent these acts, address the core problems in Rakhine state, including the continued lack of adequate security forces and rule of law on the ground, and create conditions for sustainable peace and development," she said in a statement.
Reported by Min Thein Aung, Kyaw Thu, and Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.