A new wave of sectarian unrest in western Myanmar has left at least 20 dead, officials say, sparking an exodus of “thousands” of people and prompting the UN to express its grave concern.
Hundreds of homes were burnt on Thursday in the fresh outburst of unrest in Rakhine state, which was convulsed by Buddhist-Muslim clashes in June that tore apart communities and left tens of thousands of mainly Muslim Rohingya languishing in basic camps.
More than 100 people have now been killed in the state, according to the authorities, which have imposed emergency rule in the face of continued explosive tension in the region.
Rakhine state spokesman Myo Thant told the AFP news agency that the latest violence had left “at least 20 people” dead so far, from both the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist and Muslim communities, clashes since October 21.
“The death toll can reach about 50,” he said, although the final number of dead was difficult to confirm immediately as security forces struggled to reach remote areas where the clashes occurred.
The UN issued a statement saying it was “gravely concerned” about the resurgence in violence and called for calm in the region.
“The UN is alarmed by reports of displacements and destruction,” said the UN chief in Yangon, Ashok Nigam, adding that the new unrest in Rakhine State had “resulted in deaths and has forced thousands of people, including women and children, to flee their homes”.
He appealed for “immediate and unconditional access to all communities in accordance with humanitarian principles”.
About 75,000 people are estimated to still be displaced following the June unrest, and the UN expressed fears over large numbers of people fleeing to the “already overcrowded” camps near the state capital of Sittwe.
Death toll ‘unknown’
Myo Thant said at least 80 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists are thought to have been injured in the latest flare-up, but he had no figures for wounded Muslims.
Earlier, he told the AFP news agency that soldiers were helping to provide security to affected areas in the state, adding that houses were torched in another town on Thursday morning.
A security official, requesting anonymity, confirmed the potential toll from this week’s bout of unrest could hit 50, adding government forces were struggling to reach pockets of violence in distant areas, including around the state’s main tourist attraction of Mrauk U.
Myanmar’s 800,000 Rohingya are viewed as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh by the Myanmar government and many Burmese – who call them “Bengalis”.
But Bangladesh has turned away Rohingya fleeing the violence.
There have been a series of protests by Buddhists in Myanmar against the stateless Muslim group, long considered by the UN to be one of the most persecuted minorities on the planet.
The bloodshed has cast a shadow over widely praised reforms by President Thein Sein, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament.
Rights groups fear that the real death toll may be much higher than the official toll.