Troops patrol in riot-hit Myanmar town to restore calm
SITTWE, Myanmar, June 13 — Soldiers and riot police patrolled the streets of the Myanmar town of Sittwe today to enforce a state of emergency after days of sectarian violence in which at least 21 people have been killed. Residents said the town was calmer.
Longstanding tension between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas flared on Friday and the security forces have struggled to stem the worst communal violence in Myanmar since a reformist government replaced an oppressive junta last year.
A Reuters reporter in Sittwe, capital of the north-western state of Rakhine, said soldiers and police with loudspeakers warned they would not tolerate people carrying weapons and anyone attempting to set fire to buildings would be dealt with.
In addition to the 21 dead, state media said that as of Monday, 21 people had been injured and 1,662 houses burnt down.
No fires were visible this morning, when heavy rain was falling. Most shops were closed but people were slowly venturing out onto the streets.
President Thein Sein faces mounting international pressure to end the bloodshed in coastal Rakhine state and quell nationalist anger in the predominantly Buddhist country against the stateless Muslim Rohingyas before the violence spreads.
The Myanmar government regards Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. But Bangladesh has refused to grant them refugee status since 1992, when tens of thousands of them flooded into Bangladesh complaining of persecution by the Myanmar military.
In recent days, hundreds of Rohingyas have tried to flee in rickety boats to Bangladesh but its foreign minister, Dipu Moni, told reporters late yesterday Bangladesh would not take them in despite a request from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“We are already overburdened with Myanmar Muslims who fled into this country over many years and we can take no more, under any circumstances,” she said.
Major Shafiqur Rahman of the Bangladesh Border Guard told Reuters by phone that 110 Rohingyas in three boats had landed in Teknaf on the southern tip of the Bangladesh mainland in the early hours today.
“They landed on our beach defying objections by the coastguard. We have detained them all, mostly women and children, and will push back later today,” he said.
The two countries are separated in the area by a river that flows into the Bay of Bengal.
Bangladeshi officials said about 30 Rohingyas had managed to enter Bangladesh. Ten had been injured in the violence and one of them, a man aged about 70, had died of gunshot wounds in hospital. An official said three others were in a critical condition.
‘Like a war zone’
The unrest undermines an image of stability in Myanmar and moves to end ethnic rebellions that persuaded the United States and Europe to suspend economic sanctions in the former Burma. Tourist arrivals and foreign investment, set to soar after the end of half a century of army rule, may also suffer.
Sittwe and nearby towns looked close to anarchy this week.
“Sittwe is like a war zone,” Shwe Maung, a Muslim legislator for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party for the town of Buthidaung, said late yesterday.
He accused police of allowing Buddhists to break a curfew and burn Muslim houses. Rakhine Buddhists have in turn blamed much of the arson on the Rohingya.
Rohingyas say their lineage in Rakhine dates back centuries.
Relations between the two communities have been uneasy for generations but tension flared last month after the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman that was blamed on Muslims.
That led to the killing of 10 Muslims on June 3, when a Buddhist mob stopped a bus they were travelling on. The passengers had no connection to the murdered woman. State media said three Muslims are on trial for the woman’s death.
Reports from Rakhine suggest the death toll since Friday is higher than the official figure. Shwe Maung, the Muslim legislator, had put the number at 50 in the village of Narzi alone by yesterday.
The United States and European Union have urged calm to prevent a derailing of Myanmar’s fragile reforms.
The crisis is likely to force Thein Sein, a former general, to confront an issue that human rights groups have criticised for years: the plight of thousands of Rohingyas who live along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh in abject conditions.
“Unless the government takes steps not just to end the violence but also lay the groundwork for protection of minority communities, there is a risk of the violence spreading,” the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental research organisation, said in a report published late yesterday.
“How the government handles this case will be a major test of the police and courts in a country that has just begun to emerge from an authoritarian past. It will also test the government’s will and capacity to reverse a longstanding policy of discrimination toward the Muslim Rohingya.”
The violence follows a year of dramatic political change, including the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, the signing of peace deals with ethnic minority rebel groups and the holding of by-elections dominated by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party. — Reuters