YANGON, Myanmar -- At least 112 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, as the government struggled to restore order, imposing dusk-to-dawn curfews in some areas and stepping up security.
Deadly violence between Buddhist ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya Muslims reportedly has spread to at least four townships over recent days, although it’s not clear what sparked it. The most recent round of tit-for-tat attacks started Sunday, but distrust between the communities goes back decades.
On Thursday, 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, is grabbing the headlines, but Myanmar faces ethnic and religious tension on several 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, even as government troops continue to battle ethnic Kachin insurgents along the northern border with China.
Some have compared the current situation to sectarian violence seen after the Soviet Union’s collapse as ironclad rule ended, leading to the airing of long-suppressed animosities. 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, 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.”
On Thursday evening, some 50 Buddhist monks protested in front of Yangon’s Sule Pagoda, 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 gives in to the Muslims, he'll leave the monkhood and join the army.
This week’s flare-up involving the two communities is reportedly the worst since June, when over 80 Muslims and Buddhists were killed after an alleged rape, forcing at least 75,000 people from their homes. Many are still in makeshift camps.
Myanmar’s increasingly open media has often been ahead of the government in reporting the conflict. Rakine State Update News, a private website, said Friday the army opened fire on a boat carrying Rakhine Buddhists in Kyout Taw township on the Kalatan 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.
Lawmaker Mann Maung Maung Nyan called on the central government Friday in parliament 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 linking China and Myanmar.
Rakhine State spokesperson Win Myaing told Reuters on Friday that the death toll had reached 112. This followed a statement Thursday from the president’s office placing the number of dead at 12, with 1,948 houses and eight religious buildings burned or otherwise destroyed.
“This violence will damage the dignity and interests of Myanmar’s citizens,” the presidential statement said. “We have also discovered that there are organizations and persons behind the agitations and will take legal action against them,” it added, without providing details on the identity of alleged agitators.
Htun Thein, a Rohingya Muslim based in Yangon, said several boats carrying hundreds of Muslim refugees, including his sister-in-law, left Kyaukpyu on Wednesday evening headed for refugee camps near the state capital of Sittwe. On the way, he said, the boats were stopped by the Myanmar navy and prevented from going farther or landing.
While the passengers had some water, Htun said, 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 childrens’ deaths.
Khine Thurein, a Rakhine Buddhist youth activist, said the violence started Sunday when a Muslim couple quarrelled 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.”
A statement by four Muslim groups Friday said they won't be celebrating Eid because the government can't guarantee their security.
The United Nations has called for calm, reporting that large numbers of people were seeking refuge in already overcrowded camps near Sittwe.
"The U.N. is gravely concerned about reports of a resurgence of inter-communal conflict in several areas in Rakhine state which has resulted in deaths and has forced thousands of people, including women and children, to flee their homes," Ashok Nigam, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, said in a statement.
Myanmar’s estimated 800,000 Muslim Rohingya are officially stateless, with many among the Buddhist majority viewing them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Dhaka has refused since 1992 to grant them citizenship. Rohingya say they’ve lived in Myanmar for generations.
“Muslims are not racist,” said Abu Tahay, a Rohingya with the National Democratic Party for Development who ran for office in 1990 but was disqualified by the then-military-led government. “We just want to live peacefully.”
Photo: A Rakhine refugee drinks as he is treated at Kyauktaw hospital in Kyauktaw, Rakhine State, in western Myanmar. Credit: Khin Maung Win / Associated Press