The easing of economic sanctions against Myanmar has had no clear effect for the nation’s poor.
The UN has called for “urgent action” to prevent the spread of intercommunal violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, after recent clashes killed dozens of people and left thousands homeless.
The organisation said a team lead by Ashok Nigam, its Resident and Humanitarian Co-ordinator, had visited the state and seen “large scale destruction of houses”.
The government estimates that more than 22,500 people have been displaced from their homes in the last week and more than 4,600 houses have been burnt.
The latest violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims began on October 21 and has left at least 84 people dead and 129 injured, according to the government.
Human rights groups believe the true toll could be far higher.
Violence erupted in Rakhine state after Muslims were blamed for the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in June, setting off deadly clashes that displaced tens of thousands of people.
“There’s always been tension between the Muslim community and the Buddhists, particularly the monks, but in Rakhine it’s particularly rife because the Buddhists fear the Rohingyas because… [their] population has more than doubled in the last 10 years and the Rakhine Buddhists believe the Muslims are trying to overpopulate and push them out,” Asia analyst Larry Jagan told Al Jazeera.
Security forces have been deployed to areas where clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya erupted on October 21.
“The Rakhine Buddhist monks have been agitating, I’ve seen pamphlets put out in the past by these extremists monks that say look at Malaysia; Malaysia was a Buddhist country a century ago and now it’s an Islamic country. We do not want the same to happen here,” Jagan said.
“In some places, the Rohingya have also initiated the violence. It’s a reflection of how tense the situation is… but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s ethnic cleansing,” Jagan told Al Jazeera.
‘Set fire to homes’
The total number of displaced is now estimated to be about 100,000, with most of them living in camps around Sittwe, the state capital.
“The Rakhines came to attack us with knives. They set fire to our homes, even though we have nothing there for them. I left in only the clothes I am wearing,” a 63-year-old woman in one of the camps said.
“I can’t go back.”
Buddhist Rakhine in Kyaukpyu gave a different account when contacted by the Reuters news agency.
He said Rakhines and Muslims had fought each other with knives, swords, sticks and slingshots. Overwhelmed, the Muslims then “set fire to their own houses as a last resort and ran away,” he said.
Many of those affected by the clashes belong to the Muslim Rohingya minority, which has long complained of discrimination.
The estimated 800,000 stateless Rohingya are seen as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh by the government and many Burmese, who call them “Bengalis”.
But other Muslims in Rakhine state have also been swept up in the latest violence.
Near the camps in Sittwe, some of the displaced people said they were Kaman, a Muslim minority recognised as one of Myanmar’s more than 130 ethnic groups.
“My father is Muslim and my mother is Buddhist … They attacked us by defining us as ‘Rohingya,’ Aye Kyaw, a Kaman who fled the unrest in Kyaukpyu, told the AFP news agency.
“We are not Rohingya. We did not migrate from other countries.”
The 30-year-old, who said his community had lived in Rakhine for centuries, said the Rakhine had “tortured us cruelly” and appealed for protection.