Thousands flee after Myanmar unrest
Agence France-Presse in Sittwe
Thousands of displaced people have surged towards already overcrowded camps in western Myanmar, the UN said on Saturday, after vicious new communal violence that has left dozens dead.
Seething resentment between Buddhists and Muslims erupted this week in a wave of fresh unrest in Rakhine state, prompting international warnings that the fighting imperils the nation’s nascent reform process.
The official death toll stood at 67. Roughly half the dead were women, according to a state spokesman, who was unable to provide a casualty breakdown by community.
Tens of thousands of mainly Muslim Rohingya are already crammed into squalid camps around the state capital Sittwe after deadly violence in June and the United Nations on Saturday said the latest fighting had caused a further 3,200 to make their way towards the shelters.
“An additional 2,500 are reportedly on their way,” said Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the UN’s refugee agency.
Rakhine government spokesman Win Myaing said on Saturday that the situation was now “calm” after security forces were deployed in response to fighting that erupted on October 21, spreading to areas that had been largely untouched by the earlier wave of conflict.
But rights groups, who fear the real death toll could far exceed official figures, have warned that entrenched hostilities in the region are continuing to stoke unrest.
Human Rights Watch on Saturday urged the government to protect the Rohingya, who it said were under “vicious attack”, and to ensure protection and aid were given to both Muslim and Buddhist communities in the region.
“Unless the authorities also start addressing the root causes of the violence, it is only likely to get worse,” Phil Robertson, HRW deputy Asia director, said in a statement on Saturday.
Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project which campaigns for Rohingya rights, said the recent spate of clashes were “far deadlier” than the June unrest.
“Rakhine State has now spiralled into complete lawlessness,” she said on Saturday.
“Violence is spreading to the south and east with the clear purpose of expelling all Muslims, not just Rohingya.”
More than 150 people have been killed in the state since June, according to the authorities, who have imposed emergency rule in an attempt to control the hostilities.
Win Myaing on Friday said many of the casualties had suffered stab wounds in the fighting.
But in Sittwe’s general hospital, most of the 27 Rakhine patients were being treated for gunshot wounds, and injured men told AFP the army had fired at Rakhines to stop them from reaching Rohingya communities.
“When we fought with the Kalar (referring to Rohingya Muslims), the military shot at us,” said one man in his forties who was visiting a relative who had been shot in the shoulder and arm.
Myanmar’s 800,000 Rohingya are seen as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh by the government and many Burmese -- who call them “Bengalis” -- and face discrimination that activists say has led to a deepening alienation from Buddhists.
HRW said it had obtained satellite images showing “extensive destruction of homes and other property in a predominantly Rohingya Muslim area” of Kyaukpyu -- where a major pipeline to transport Myanmar gas to China begins.
It found hundreds of buildings had been torched in the attack in the coastal town, one of several areas affected by the new wave of unrest.
Intercommunal bloodshed in Rakhine has cast a shadow over widely praised reforms by President Thein Sein, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament.
“The vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric must be stopped,” a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement released in Yangon on Friday.
“If this is not done... the reform and opening-up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardised.”
The stateless Rohingya, speaking a Bengali dialect similar to one in neighbouring Bangladesh, have long been considered by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities on the planet.
Bangladesh on Thursday mobilised extra patrols along its river border with Myanmar amid reports of dozens of boats carrying Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing the clashes.