More than 22,000 people from mainly Muslim communities have been displaced by fresh unrest in western Myanmar that has killed dozens and seen whole neighbourhoods razed, the UN says.
“The latest figures we have is 22,587 people have been displaced and we have about 4,665 houses that have been destroyed… according to government estimates provided to the UN,” Ashok Nigam, the UN chief in Yangon, told the
AFP news agency on Sunday.
He said 21,700 of those made homeless were Muslims.
Tensions between the Buddhist majority and the stateless Muslim Rohingya minority have been rife since deadly violence began in June. Tens of thousands people were living in camps around Sittwe, the state capital of Rakhine state, already before the latest flare-up. The total number of displaced is now estimated to be around 100,000.
Security forces have been deployed to the affected areas where violence erupted on October 21. More than 80 people have been killed in the last week, according to a government official, bringing the total toll since June to above 170.
In Minbya, one of the townships affected by the fighting, a senior police official told the AFP news agency that more than 4,000 people, mainly Muslims, had been made homeless after hundreds of properties in six villages were torched.
“Some victims are staying at their relatives’ houses, some are in temporary relief camps, they are staying near those burnt areas,” he said, adding that a heightened security presence had prevented further clashes.
“They are staying between Muslims and Rakhine people,” he said.
He said the UN had already started mobilising to take food and shelter to displaced communities, “but we will quickly need more resources”.
On Saturday, a human rights group expressed concern for the safety of thousands of Rohingya after revealing satellite images of a once-thriving coastal community reduced to ashes.
The images released by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) show “near total destruction” of a predominantly Rohingya part of Kyaukpyu, one of several areas in Rakhine where clashes have occurred.
More than 811 buildings and houseboats were razed in Kyaukpyu on October 24, forcing many Rohingya to flee north by sea towards Sittwe, said HRW.
“Burma’s government urgently needs to provide security for the Rohingya in Arakan [Rakhine] State, who are under vicious attack,” said Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director.
State television said 2,818 houses were destroyed, many of them burnt down, from Sunday to Thursday.
It was unclear what set off the latest round of arson and killings.
In June, ethnic violence in Rakhine left at least 90 people dead and destroyed more than 3,000 homes after the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman that was blamed on Muslims.
‘Obstacle to development’
The UN said Myanmar’s fledgling democracy could be “irreparably damaged” by the clashes.
“The fabric of social order could be irreparably damaged and the reform and opening-up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardised,” a spokesman for Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said on Friday.
“The widening mistrust between the communities is being exploited by militant and criminal elements to cause large-scale loss of human lives.”
President Thein Sein’s government has described the Rohingya problem as an obstacle to development on other fronts.
Sein took office last year following elections boycotted by the opposition National League for Democracy, and has instituted economic and political liberalisation after almost half a century of repressive military rule.
“As the international community is closely watching Myanmar’s democratic transition, such unrest could tarnish the image of the country,” a statement from Sein’s office, published on Friday in the state-run Myanma Ahlin newspaper, said.
“The army, police and authorities in co-operation with local people will try to restore peace and stability and will take legal action against any individual or organisation that is trying to instigate the unrest.”
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Larry Jagan, a freelance journalist who has covered Myanmar extensively, told Al Jazeera: “These attacks are much more worrying because they are [in] outlying areas that are inhabited by Burmese Muslims who are not Rohingya.
“The problem the government is facing at the moment of course is that the violence is in outlying areas and across the coast – not in the central municipal areas. They are having difficulties getting forces into those areas,” he added.
“There have been reports that soldiers have been firing over the heads of Muslims and Buddhists and there have been one or two injuries. The government really needs to take initiative that shows they intend to have a political solution because this really has been a problem that has been continuing since independence,” said Jagan.
Rohingya are officially stateless. Although many of them have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely denigrated as intruders who came from neighbouring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.
The UN estimates the Rohingya population in Myanmar at 800,000. But the government does not count them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, and so – like neighbouring Bangladesh – denies them citizenship.
Human rights groups say racism also plays a role. Many Rohingya, who speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and are heavily discriminated against.