Updated at 10:30 a.m. ET on 2014-04-02
Police have held 12 people for questioning over a riot that chased international aid workers from western Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state, officials said Tuesday, as the expelled groups warned of a humanitarian crisis for Muslim Rohingyas in refugee camps they had been serving.
All 12 have been released since they were rounded up Tuesday night and early Wednesday as part of a probe ordered by President Thein Sein into the two days of attacks last week against U.N. agencies’ and other humanitarian groups’ offices in the state capital Sittwe.
In a rampage that saw a 13-year-old girl accidentally shot dead by police, mobs of hundreds of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists had ransacked and hurled stones at the offices of aid agencies sent to care for thousands of Rohingyas displaced by two years of violent ethnic conflict.
“Six men and six women were taken in and investigated [in connection with the attacks],” Maung Maung Ohn, chairman of the commission conducting the probe told RFA’s Myanmar Service Tuesday.
“Our commission’s primary responsibility is to investigate and take action against those who carried out the attacks,” said the chairman, who is also Myanmar’s deputy minister of border affairs.
The son of one of the 12 interrogated said police had taken his father away in a midnight raid on their home.
“The police came and entered our home by kicking the main door at around 12:00 a.m. last night, pointing their guns at my dad and mom,” said Naing Soe, son of Sittwe resident Maung Thein who was interrogated.
“When I asked what was going on, they pointed their guns at me and took me in front of the house. They led my dad away in handcuffs,” he said.
Rakhine State Government spokesperson Win Myaing said those held had been released because they were not responsible for the violence, which was prompted by reports that an aid worker had taken down a Buddhist flag.
“These were not arrests,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The commission, which was formed Sunday in the wake of the March 26-27 violence, is scheduled to report its findings to President Thein Sein by April 7 and will later release them publicly.
Officials are also probing whether local authorities had failed in their duties during the incident, and will inform U.N. agencies and aid groups of their findings, Maung Maung Ohn said.
Police have said that some 30 houses and several warehouses in Sittwe were destroyed in the violence, and that 13-year-old Ne Ma was accidentally killed as security forces fired warning shots to disperse a mob.
As mobs attacked the offices and warehouses of aid groups including OXFAM, Save the Children, Solidarities International, Malteser International, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the World Food Programme, many groups abandoned their operations in the state.
Relief groups have said the violence forced them to evacuate some 700 staff from the state in the biggest disruption of aid in two years, according to the Associated Press.
Much of the groups’ aid had gone to camps housing thousands of Rohingyas displaced by several bouts of communal violence since 2012, to the resentment of the Buddhist Rakhine community which had staged protests against foreign aid groups in recent months. Aid groups' policies are to distribute relief to both communities.
Maung Maung Ohn said it was possible the attacks had been purposely instigated to cause instability ahead of Myanmar’s first national census in 30 years, which began Sunday.
“There could have been some incitement behind these attacks because it is the time of the census,” he said.
Some aid groups have charged that last week’s violent rampage was “planned in advance” to stop international groups from facilitating the national census, which has been marred by controversy over reports that Rohingyas were being excluded from the survey and barred from self-identifying their ethnicity.
But the greater concern about the lack of aid groups’ presence in Rakhine state was tied to the immediate care for 140,000 vulnerable people living in refugee camps in the state.
Short on food, water
Aid workers expelled from Rakhine state who gathered in Myanmar’s main city Yangon warned Tuesday that the state is facing a dire humanitarian crisis.
Within two weeks, food stocks will run out and at least 20,000 people will be without clean water, they said, according to the Associated Press.
The heath situation is even more critical, they said, with almost no life-saving services such as emergency hospital referrals.
“We are very concerned about the impact that this is having on humanitarian operations,” U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokesman Pierre Peron said, according to the news agency.
The United Nations sent a high-level delegation to Sittwe on Tuesday to meet with senior officials from the central and state government to work on a short-term solution, including delivering water and food rations, the news agency reported.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Thin Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the ICRC abandoned operations in the state.