Troops Patrol Western Burma as Sectarian Strife Continues

Posted June 12th, 2012 at 8:50 am (UTC-5)
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Armed security forces presided over an uneasy calm in western Burma Tuesday, as international pressure mounts for an end to a week of deadly violence between Muslims and Buddhists.

President Thein Sein has deployed army troops and declared a state of emergency in coastal Rakhine state, where at least 17 people have been killed and hundreds of homes destroyed since last week.

Rights groups fear the death toll may be much higher and are urging Burma's government to do more to stop the violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday said the violence is “spiraling out of control.” It urged the government to allow international observers to put all sides on notice that they are being watched.

A Human Rights Watch official said there are reports riot police in the region are favoring the Rakhine over the Rohingya.

Many residents in the region have told VOA they are afraid to leave their houses because of rival mobs of Muslims and Buddhists that are torching houses and police firing into the air to disperse riots. Small arms fire could be heard on Tuesday in the regional capital, Sittwe, where many people ran to escape the chaos.

Bangladeshi officials say their border guards have turned back more than 300 Rohingya Muslims trying to flee the fighting.

The violence erupted June 4, 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.

It has also poses a serious challenge to Burma's new government, which took power last year following decades of harsh military rule.

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

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday she is deeply concerned about the situation. She is calling for a transparent investigation into the violence and says the situation underscores the need for “serious efforts to achieve national reconciliation in Burma.”

The United Nations has begun evacuating more than 40 workers and their families from a base in the border city, Maungdaw. U.N. Regional Development Chief Ashok Nigam says he hopes the workers can return when the violence subsides.

“There have been no attacks on the U.N. compound; we have received security from the government. We will assess the situation and hope we can go back very soon.”

State-controlled newspapers say more than 4,100 people who lost their homes have taken refuge in makeshift shelters at Buddhist monasteries, schools and a police headquarters in Maungdaw and Buthidaung in Rakhine state.