Several people killed and homes set ablaze in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state.
Security forces in Myanmar are patrolling a tense town in the western state of Rakhine after deadly sectarian clashes forced the country’s president to declare a state of emergency.
Government forces on Monday were seen collecting bodies from the debris of homes burned down over the weekend in what appears to have been one of the worst episodes of sectarian bloodshed in years, as fearful residents remained indoors.
Police in the capital, Sittwe, retrieved four bodies, including one found in a river that was believed to be that of an ethnic Rakhine woman. The other three bodies were wrapped in blankets, but it was not clear who they were.
Recent violence in Rakhine state is a stark and brutal reminder of the challenges Myanmar faces.
At least 17 people have been killed in the past week in attacks between Muslim and Buddhist communities. At the heart of the issue are the minority Muslim Rohingya who are given few rights in Myanmar and are not afforded the status of an official ethnic minority group.
There are many other areas of ethnic, religious and social tension in Myanmar. The situation in Rakhine state may be isolated for now, but it shows just how fragile many parts of Myanmar are.
There may also be hardliners within the country who would jump on any instability to try to prove that Myanmar is not quite ready for the democratic path it has embarked on.
Police evacuated two Muslim families from the same area for their security because their homes were located among houses of ethnic Rakhines, who are predominantly Buddhist. The region is home to a Muslim minority who identify themselves as Rohingyas
Residents from Muslim-dominated town of Maungdaw had taken refuge in the local police headquarters, as a curfew came into force in the troubled areas to restore order.
Shops, schools and banks were closed, including Sittwe’s main market, and some ethnic Rakhines wielding homemade swords could be seen guarding their homes or riding motorcycles.
An Associated Press photographer in the town saw many homes burned or ransacked in the city’s Mi Zan district.
Army troops deployed in the towns of Maungdaw and Buthidaung to help local police keep order, and security officials were reported to have fired shots to quell the violence.
Bangladesh border guards also pushed back eight boats carrying more than 300 Rohingya, mostly women and children, who were fleeing the violence, a border guard told the AFP news agency.
“There were more than 300 Rohingya in the boats which are coming from the Myanmar city of Akyab (Sittwe). They were carrying mainly Rohingya women and children, many of whom were crying and looked extremely anxious,” Shafiqur Rahman, a major in the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) force, told AFP.
“All eight boats have been pushed back to Myanmar territory,” he added.
“It’s a tinderbox,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said. “These people very much feel like they’re trapped in a box, surrounded by enemies and there is an extremely high level of frustration.”
The UN said it was relocating about 44 workers and their families from a base in Maungdaw in Rakhine state, Ashok Nigam, UN resident and humanitarian co-ordinator in Yangon, said.
The violence has left at least seven people dead and hundreds of homes torched since Friday, and poses one of the biggest tests yet for Myanmar’s reformist government.
The handling of the unrest will draw close scrutiny from Western powers, which have praised President Thein Sein’s administration in recent months and rewarded it by easing years of harsh economic sanctions.
|Who are the Rohingyas?|
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group from the northern Rakhine state of western Myanmar, formerly known as Arakan state.
Their history dates to the early seventh century, when Arab Muslim traders settled in the area.
They are physically, linguistically and culturally similar to South Asians, especially Bengali people.
According to Amnesty International, they suffer from human rights violations under the Myanmar military government, and many have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as a result.
The vast majority of them have effectively been denied Myanmar citizenship.
In 1978 an estimated 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh.
Approximately 20,000 Rohingya are living in UN refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Sein declared a state of emergency in the region late on Sunday and pleaded for an end to the “endless anarchic vengeance”, warning that if the situation spun out of control, it could jeopardise the democratic reforms he has launched since taking office last year.
“We have not had any sleep for the last five days,” said Ma Ohn May, a 42-year old textile shop owner in Sittwe.
The region has been tense for more than a week after rape and murder of a Buddhist woman blamed on Muslims and the reprisal killing of 10 Muslims at hands of a Buddhist mob.
State media said three men had gone on trial on Friday for the rape and murder.
Rohingya Muslims are seen by the government as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and are not officially recognised as one of the country’s national ethnic minorities.
Although some are recent settlers, many have lived in Myanmar for centuries. The government position has rendered the Rohingyas effectively stateless, and rights groups say they have long suffered discrimination.
The UN’s refugee agency estimates there are about 800,000 of them in three districts of Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh.
In Yangon on Sunday, about 600 ethnic Rakhine gathered at the Shwedagon Pagoda, a revered Buddhist site, demanding “Bengalis” be “removed from Myanmar”.
The amount of information about violence released by state media in a timely fashion was nearly unprecedented, although still far from comprehensive.
Under the previous military government, such incidents usually went unreported or were referred to only in brief, cryptic fashion.