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Myanmar forces struggle to contain ethnic and religious violence

June 12, 2012 |  8:21 am

Myanmar
NEW DELHI -- Security forces struggled to contain clashes in western Myanmar on Tuesday after days of ethnic and religious violence left at least a dozen people killed and thousands displaced.

The fighting between majority Rakhine Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims is posing a serious challenge for the national government and its reform agenda as it seeks to end decades of isolation and military rule.

President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in coastal Rakhine state Sunday night and ordered troops into the area to restore calm, but reports of violence continue and the United Nations announced it is evacuating staff from the area.

Police fired rounds into the air Tuesday to disperse Rohingya as houses burned in a neighborhood of the regional capital of Sittwe, the Associated Press reported.

In a refugee camp on the outskirts of New Delhi, Hafiz Ahmed, 42, said he was worried sick about the situation. "My parents are in Rakhine, I can't sleep at night," said Ahmed, who came to India three years ago to escape persecution in Myanmar. "Every three or four hours, I call them. I think the violence should stop now."

The unrest was sparked Friday following last month's rape and murder of a Buddhist girl, allegedly by three Muslims, and the lynching of 10 Muslims in retaliation. The weekend saw rival Muslim and Buddhist mobs burn houses. The government said about 4,100 people have lost their homes, many taking refuge in schools and Buddhist monasteries.

Analysts said that while the problem surfaced over the past week, the underlying conditions have developed over decades. A longstanding narrative of the military junta that had ruled the country for more than half a century was the preeminence of the ethnic Burman majority, which makes up about 68% of the population of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"The rest, the non-Burmans, were pretty much persecuted," said Jan Zalewski, a London-based South Asia analyst with IHS Global Insight, a forecasting firm. "As you reform and open up the media, people have an opportunity to vent their anger over everything that's sitting quite deep. So you increase the polarization between groups."

Even among Myanmar's ethnic communities, however, the Rohingya are often discriminated against. Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh officially refuse to accept them. In recent days, Bangladesh has turned back several boats filled with Rohingya, rendering them essentially stateless.

The U.N., which estimates that 800,000 Rohingya live in mountainous Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh, lists them as among the most discriminated communities in the world. Also driving prejudices, analysts said, is concern among Rakhine Buddhists that Rohingya will take scarce jobs.

Mohammad Sadek, an activist with Malaysia's Rohingya Arakanese Refugee Committee, is bracing for more refugees into that country, which already has some 40,000 Rohingya living in camps or awaiting U.N. recognition.

"We are trying to call on the international community, especially the U.N., to send peacekeeping forces to mediate," he said. "Thousands of Rohingya are displaced, the wounded can't get medication, it's a crisis."

Though Myanmar's military-backed government has introduced a series of reforms in recent months, some analysts expressed concern that it could use the current crisis as a pretext to tighten control.

In recent weeks, the government has faced growing dissent across the country, including broad-based protests over endemic power cuts, demonstrations in Shan state over a destroyed market and angry workers blocking access to 12 gold mines in Mandalay Division over job cuts and labor conditions.

"As the government starts to see that things could get out of control, they're trying to divert attention, and gain popularity through [Burman] nationalism," said Khin Ohmar, a Thailand-based coordinator with Burma Partnership, a pro-democracy civic group. "It's the same old trick."

The European Union said Monday it was satisfied with Myanmar's "measured" response to the Muslim-Buddhist violence, while the United States called on all ethnic groups to work toward reconciliation.

"We urge the people of Burma to work together toward a peaceful, prosperous and democratic country that respects the rights of all its diverse peoples," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement Monday.

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-- Mark Magnier and Tanvi Sharma

Photo: A Rohingya Muslim family who fled Myanmar to escape religious violence sits at a shelter provided by locals in Taknaf, Bangladesh, on Tuesday. Credit: Anurup Titu / Associated Press

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