YANGON, Myanmar – Soldiers and police patrolled streets in western Myanmar on Friday after Buddhist mobs attacked offices and residences of international aid workers this week, prompting the evacuation of almost all non-essential staff, residents and an official said. The mob action resulted in the death of a 13-year-old girl who was killed when police fired into the air to disperse the crowds.
The government said it would investigate the violence, which occurred Wednesday and Thursday in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state.
It's a basic international principle that humanitarian aid workers be allowed to operate safely and without hindrance, and the U.S., Britain and the United Nations expressed deep concern over the developments.
They also pointed to failures by security forces to contain sectarian violence that since mid-2012 has left up to 280 people dead and sent another 240,000 fleeing their homes. Most of the victims have been Rohingya, a Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist country. Buddhist ethnic Rakhine accuse the Rohingya of being illegal immigrants.
Police escorted aid workers from their homes for safety reasons, placing dozens under protection, Sittwe resident Aung Than said by phone. Other aid groups said they were evacuating all local and foreign non-essential staff, some on regularly scheduled flights, others on charters.
Tun Tha, another resident contacted by phone, said the situation was calm Friday, thanks in part to a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. Soldiers and police were patrolling the streets, he said. Win Myaing, the state spokesman, said several people were being questioned in connection with the rioting.
Local Rakhine residents have been angry with international non-governmental groups for their relief efforts, accusing them of showing favoritism to tens of thousands of Rohingya in camps for the displaced. There have been several tense protests in the past, and many Western aid workers started leaving days ago for security reasons.
Last month, the government stopped the Nobel Peace Prize-winning aid group Doctors Without Borders from working in the state altogether, in part because it had hired Rohingya.
As part of the anti-Rohingya campaign, Buddhist flags have been place in front of almost every house and office in Sittwe in recent days.
On Wednesday the tensions exploded, sparked by reports that an American woman had removed one of those flags from in front of the Malteser International office and then held it near her hip as she carried it away, an act that was interpreted as a deep insult.
The 300 people who surrounded the building dispersed only after police fired dozens of rounds of warning shots into the air, state spokesman Win Myaing said.
A 13-year-old Rakhine girl was killed by one of the bullets, according to residents and a witness at the funeral home.
The violence continued Thursday, with more than 1,000 people running through a street that houses international aid workers, throwing rocks at homes and damaging several of the residences. OXFAM, the World Lutheran Foundation and the World Food Program were among those targeted.