Death Toll Passes 20 in Sectarian Strife in Burma

Posted June 12th, 2012 at 4:20 pm (UTC-5)
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Burmese state media say more than 20 people have been killed in the western state of Rakhine, as international pressure mounts for an end to sectarian fighting between ethnic-Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

The media say that since Friday, when the latest clashes between the two sides erupted, 21 people have been killed, more than 20 wounded, and some 1,660 homes were destroyed.

There was a heavy security presence Tuesday in the regional capital, Sittwe, where fires dotted the area and people ran to escape the chaos.

Hundreds of Rohingyas have attempted to flee to Bangladesh by boat to escape the escalating violence, but Dhaka has been turning them back. Bangladesh's Foreign Ministry said it was not in the the country's best interest to allow the Rohingyas in.

President Thein Sein has declared a state of emergency in Rakhine and sent army troops to the area.

The conflict poses one of the biggest tests for Burma's new government, as the nation takes first steps towards democracy after decades of military rule.

In Washington Tuesday, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the chamber, introduced a bill that would extend an import ban on Burma for another year to give the U.S. leverage to prompt further reforms in the country. But the documents also accommodates the Obama administration's measures announced last month, including an easing of restrictions on U.S. investment in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

The violence erupted earlier this month, when a Buddhist mob in Sittwe ambushed a bus and killed 10 Rohingya passengers, mistakenly believing they were responsible for the recent gang-rape and murder of a Buddhist woman.

The unrest has highlighted long-standing tensions between Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims. Burma does not classify its estimated 800,000 Rohingyas as Burmese citizens, instead regarding them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

President Thein Sein has warned the violence could jeopardize the country's nascent reform process. He said the unrest is fueled by “hatred and revenge based on religion and nationality” and noted it could spread to other parts of the country. If that happens, he said the country's stability, peace, and democratization process could be severely affected.

Burma's military rulers transferred power to the new government last year. Lex Rieffel, a non-resident senior fellow at the U.S.-based Brookings Institution, told VOA Tuesday it is unclear how challenging the violence would be to Burma's new nominally civilian government.

“There's no simple answer to that question. I think we can only hope and pray that it's easy. That people sort of come to their senses and realize that there's no reason to … that there are other ways of dealing with differences than killing each other.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday expressed “deep concern” about the situation in Burma. She has called for a transparent investigation into the violence and said the situation underscores the need for “serious efforts to achieve national reconciliation in Burma.”