By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times –
YANGON, Myanmar — More than 60 people have been killed and thousands of houses burned as ethnic and religious violence in western Myanmar intensifies, according to news reports and community activists.
Violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya Muslims reportedly has spread to at least four townships over recent days, with the government struggling to restore order by imposing dusk-to-dawn curfews in some areas and stepping up security.
It’s not fully clear what sparked the most recent round of attacks that started Sunday. The death toll itself was also murky, with officials initially reporting Friday that 112 had been killed, but later scaling back the number to 67.
One thing that is clear, however, is the distrust between the two communities goes back decades. Myanmar’s estimated 800,000 Muslim Rohingya are officially stateless, with many among the Buddhist majority viewing them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government has refused since 1992 to grant them citizenship. The Rohingya say they’ve lived in Myanmar for generations.
On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged the government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, to try to immediately halt the violence as she called for unfettered access to the affected area by international humanitarian groups.
Western Rakhine state, where the violence has occurred, has grabbed the headlines, but Myanmar faces ethnic and religious tension on multiple fronts. Although the recently installed civilian government has signed cease-fire agreements with several of the country’s ethnic groups, these don’t amount to peace deals, and government troops continue to battle ethnic Kachin insurgents along the northern border with China.
Some have compared the current situation to the violence seen after the Soviet Union’s collapse as ironclad rule ended, leading to the airing of long-suppressed animosities in Europe. A protracted war in the Balkans followed.
Those in Myanmar hope bloodshed can be contained even as they acknowledge the risk. “The situation remains tense and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” said Aung Naing Oo, a member of a 27-person commission formed by the government to investigate the violence, who returned from a weeklong trip to Rakhine state Wednesday. “What I have seen or heard reminds me of former Yugoslavia.”
Aung said he saw smoke over Kyaukpyu township from the air during this week’s visits to Rakhine Buddhist and Muslim refugee camps. “Both the Rakhine and Muslims are victims of neglect from the previous governments,” he added. “As with any conflict where blood is spilled, reconciliations are always difficult.”
About 50 Buddhist monks protested in front of Yangon’s Sule Pagoda on Thursday, holding posters of Buddhists allegedly injured by Muslims. Popular opinion in Myanmar, including among Buddhist monks, is weighted against the Rohingya. One well-known monk, U Pyinar Thiha, said that if the government gave in to the Muslims he would leave the monkhood and join the army.
This week’s flare-up is reportedly the worst since June, when more than 80 Muslims and Buddhists were killed in clashes after an alleged rape, forcing at least 75,000 people from their homes. Many remain in makeshift camps.
Myanmar’s increasingly open media has often been ahead of the government in reporting the conflict. Rakhine State Update News, a private website, said Friday that the army had opened fire on a boat carrying Rakhine Buddhists in Kyout Taw township on the Kaladan River, killing two and wounding 10. The report could not be confirmed. Rakhine Straight Views, another website, reported that arson attacks by both sides continued Friday.
In parliament on Friday, lawmaker Mann Maung Maung Nyan called on the central government to increase security immediately and prevent human rights violations. The Home Affairs Ministry pledged to act swiftly against anyone breaking the law.
Violence this week has reportedly spread to Kyaukpyu, a commercial center that marks the start of a multibillion-dollar energy pipeline between China and Myanmar.
“This violence will damage the dignity and interests of Myanmar’s citizens,” a presidential statement read. “We have also discovered that there are organizations and persons behind the agitations and will take legal action against them,” it added, without identifying any agitators.
Htun Thein, a Rohingya Muslim based in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, said several boats carrying hundreds of Muslim refugees, including his sister-in-law, left Kyaukpyu on Wednesday evening headed for refugee camps near the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe. On the way, he said, the boats were stopped by the Myanmar navy and prevented from going farther or landing.
The passengers had some water, he said, but they ran out of food.
A woman named Sandar delivered twins on the boat, he added in an account that could not be verified, but the lack of food and conditions aboard led to the deaths of five children including the newborns. Shine Win, a Yangon-based Muslim activist leading an interfaith group, said he hadn’t heard about the dead twins but received several calls from refugees on the boats detailing children’s deaths.
Khine Thurein, a Rakhine Buddhist youth activist, said the violence started Sunday when a Muslim couple quarreled with a Rakhine man, attracting a mob that went on a rampage, burning several houses. This in turn led to reprisals over several days, he added. “It’s still going on,” he said. “The government is trying to control the situation, but security is limited, so it’s difficult.”