Buddhist mobs attack aid workers’ homes in Myanmar

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International and national staffs of non-governmental organizations arrive in domestic airport in Yangon from Sittwe, Thursday, Mar 27, 2014 following Buddhist-led mobs tore through streets hurling stones at the offices and residences of international aid workers in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state on Thursday, prompting the evacuation of staff members. Tensions in Rakhine have been soaring ahead of a national census — the first in 30 years — with many Buddhist ethnic Rakhine saying members of the religious minority should not be allowed to identify themselves as Rohingya on the survey. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

International and national staffs of non-governmental organizations arrive in domestic airport in Yangon from Sittwe, Thursday, Mar 27, 2014 following Buddhist-led mobs tore through streets hurling stones at the offices and residences of international aid workers in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state on Thursday, prompting the evacuation of staff members. Tensions in Rakhine have been soaring ahead of a national census — the first in 30 years — with many Buddhist ethnic Rakhine saying members of the religious minority should not be allowed to identify themselves as Rohingya on the survey. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

International staffs of non-governmental organizations “Save the Children” get in to a taxi upon arriving in domestic airport in Yangon from Sittwe, Thursday, Mar 27, 2014 following Buddhist-led mobs tore through streets hurling stones at the offices and residences of international aid workers in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state on Thursday, prompting the evacuation of staff members. Tensions in Rakhine have been soaring ahead of a national census — the first in 30 years — with many Buddhist ethnic Rakhine saying members of the religious minority should not be allowed to identify themselves as Rohingya on the survey. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

International and national staffs of non-governmental organizations collect their luggage upon arriving in domestic airport in Yangon from Sittwe, Thursday, Mar 27, 2014 following Buddhist-led mobs tore through streets hurling stones at the offices and residences of international aid workers in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state on Thursday, prompting the evacuation of staff members. Tensions in Rakhine have been soaring ahead of a national census — the first in 30 years — with many Buddhist ethnic Rakhine saying members of the religious minority should not be allowed to identify themselves as Rohingya on the survey. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

International and national staffs of non-governmental organizations transfer into a bus upon arriving in domestic airport in Yangon from Sittwe, Thursday, Mar 27, 2014 following Buddhist-led mobs tore through streets hurling stones at the offices and residences of international aid workers in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state on Thursday, prompting the evacuation of staff members. Tensions in Rakhine have been soaring ahead of a national census — the first in 30 years — with many Buddhist ethnic Rakhine saying members of the religious minority should not be allowed to identify themselves as Rohingya on the survey. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Buddhist-led mobs tore through streets hurling stones at the offices and residences of international aid workers in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state Thursday, prompting the evacuation of almost all non-essential staff, residents and officials said. Some were flown out, others placed under protection at a police guest house.

There were no immediate indications anyone was hurt in the violence, which started in the state capital, Sittwe, late Wednesday and picked up again early Thursday, with angry crowds swelling in size from several hundred to more than 1,000.

At least one building was looted and three cars damaged, aid workers said on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation.

State-run television said a commission would be formed to investigate the incident.

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million, emerged from a half-century of military rule in 2011. But newfound freedoms of expression that accompanied its transition to democracy have given voice to religious hatred, causing violence that has left up to 280 people dead and sent another 140,000 fleeing their homes.

Most of the victims have been members of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.

Aid groups that have been providing care for those now living in crowded camps — where they have little access to food, education or health care — have for months faced threats and intimidation by Buddhist Rakhine, hampering their ability to work.

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.

Tensions in Rakhine have reached fever pitch ahead of next month’s national census — the first in 30 years. Many Buddhists say members of the religious minority should not be allowed to identify themselves as Rohingya — while not listed among the 135 ethnicities, there is an “other” category where respondents could write it in — over fears it could legitimize their existence in the country.

Though many of their families arrived generations ago, they have been denied citizenship by law.

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.

Up to 300 people surrounded Malteser International late Wednesday following reports that a woman had removed the flag from the group’s office, Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said, adding that police had to fire 40 to 50 warning shots to disperse the crowd.

The organization could not immediately be reached for comment, but residents said the woman who took down the flag was seen holding it near her waist, a sign of disrespect.

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.

“If police stopped them at one place, the mob moved to a different location and threw stones at (nongovernmental organization) houses,” Sittwe resident Aung Than said by phone.

Police escorted aid workers from their homes for safety reasons Thursday, he said.

Dozens were taken to a guest house.

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