A top U.N. envoy visited western Burma Wednesday as government troops restored relative calm to the region after more than a week of unrest between Muslim and Buddhist vigilantes left about two dozen dead and hundreds of homes torched.
The U.N. special adviser on Burma, Vijay Nambiar, visited the capital of Rakhine state, Sittwe, accompanied by government officials, before taking a flight north along the Bay of Bengal to Maungdaw—a predominantly Muslim city where the sectarian violence began about 10 days ago.
According to an RFA reporter on the ground, Sittwe was fairly calm Wednesday morning, with few members of the security forces deployed. Most residents were no longer carrying weapons for protection, the reporter said.
"Nambiar and [Minister for Border Affairs and Industrial Development] Thein Htay arrived in Sittwe this morning and traveled to Buthidaung [east of Maungdaw],” the reporter said.
“In Sittwe, every monastery is filled with refugees,” he said, adding that while some donors had arrived from Rangoon, there was no assistance from the international community so far.
“I don't see any help from the U.N. yet—mostly local nongovernmental organizations, communities, and individuals.”
Neither the Burmese authorities nor the U.N. had spoken with the press regarding the unrest at the time of writing, the reporter said.
And a sense of unease remained around the region, where residents now face food shortages and fear retribution after bands of Buddhists and Muslims fought in the streets over the last 10 days, leaving at least 21 people dead and more than 1,600 homes burnt to the ground.
Some reports put the number of dead at 25.
On Wednesday night, state television news for the region reported no new violence and described efforts by the military to restore order and provide relief.
A state of emergency continued in the capital city Wednesday, providing the military with full authority over government and security affairs in Rakhine state. A curfew is also in effect from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. each day and authorities have banned public meetings of more than five persons.
The threat of violence had stopped the flow of supplies from Rangoon to Sittwe, making food and other goods scarce and expensive. Shops, banks, schools, and markets remained closed Wednesday.
Week of violence
Clashes in Rakhine state began on June 3 when Buddhist vigilantes attacked a bus and killed 10 Muslims in the worst example of communal violence in Burma since President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took power in March last year and set the country on a path toward reform.
The group believed the Muslims had been responsible for raping and killing a Buddhist woman a week earlier and sought retribution when it set upon the bus on its route near Taunggoke town.
Violence then spread to the capital city where, together with the strife-torn towns of Buthidaung, Thandwe, Kyaukpyu, Maungdaw, and Ramree, dawn-to-dusk curfews were imposed after residents torched houses, leaving thousands homeless.
Residents in the capital had openly carried weapons such as knives and spears to protect themselves as authorities imposed emergency rule over the weekend.
Ethnic tensions are common in Rakhine, which is home to Burma’s largest population of Muslims, including the Rohingya, though they remain a minority in the largely Buddhist region. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that some 800,000 Rohingya live in Rakhine state.
The Burmese government regards the Rohingya as foreigners and not among the nation's ethnic groups. Many Burmese consider them illegal immigrants.
While some groups blame Rohingya mobs for the violence, Rohingya activists and residents accuse ethnic Rakhine of terrorizing their communities.
Meanwhile, President Thein Sein has warned that the ethnic tensions could threaten the pace of democratic reforms transitioning the country from decades of military rule.
And the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said in a statement issued Wednesday from Geneva that continued violence in Rakhine state represented a “serious threat to the country's future” in terms of democratic change and stability.
Local NGOs estimate there are now over 100,000 refugees that have fled the fighting in Rakhine. In Sittwe alone there are 35 refugee camps with more than 10,000 Rakhine refugees, they report.
Camps for Muslims are located in Thechaung and Bu Mae villages and are being guarded by members of the military and the police, the NGOs reported, though there were no confirmed numbers of refugees.
Tin Oo, deputy chair of the National League for Democracy (NLD), prodemocracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, said members of the Free Funeral Service from Rangoon were on their way to help the residents of Rakhine, while the NLD is preparing assistance for the refugees.
The Free Funeral Service had assisted families of those who perished with interment arrangements in the aftermath of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis crisis.
He also stressed that the violence between the two groups was not ethnically or religiously motivated, but rather the result of a crime.
But the recent clashes have also seen Muslims attempt to flee Burma en masse over concerns for their safety.
Some 1,500 Rohingya have been refused entry to Bangladesh by boat since the weekend, prompting the U.S. State Department to remind the country of its obligations to protect refugees under international law.
New York-based Human Rights Watch also urged Bangladesh to allow the Rohingya refuge, saying lives were at risk. Bangladesh has said that it is unable to devote already strained resources to the group.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.