Tensions appear to have cooled in western Burma’s Rakhine state following clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, but tens of thousands displaced by the violence face aid shortages and remain afraid to return home.
Troops patrolled the streets of the state capital Sittwe Friday, where weekly Muslim prayers were cancelled and a dawn-to-dusk curfew remains in place as the sectarian strife left at least 29 people dead since June 8.
Nearly 32,000 people have been displaced and are living in 37 camps that have been set up for both Rakhine and Rohingya across the state, officials said.
North of the capital, people fleeing the fighting are straining resources in Yathetaung township, where 12,000 people, mostly Rakhine Buddhists, are living, a local official said.
Hla Myint, township chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), told RFA Friday that aid is being sent to neighboring Buthitaung and Maungdaw townships, but not to the 14 camps in Yathetaung.
"The help hasn't arrived in Yathetaung yet,” adding that there had only been enough aid and supplies for the first 5,000 of the displaced.
"We were able to help them at the beginning, but not anymore. We need things like sheets, bedding, and other items.”
“There is no camp opened by authorities. All refugee camps are opened and run by local people and groups."
"We use schools and Buddhist temples for camps, and have sent some 3,000 refugees to private homes. Some refugees are in the villages,” he said.
According to official estimates Thursday, nearly 2,600 homes, some 1,200 of them ethnic Rakhine and some 1,300 Rohingya, had been destroyed in the violence.
The U.N. refugee agency, which sent monitors to the region this week, said the need for food, shelter, and medical attention for the displaced could be “considerable.”
Some Rohingya fleeing the violence by boat to neighboring Bangladesh, already burdened with about 300,000 Rohingya living in its poor southeast, have been turned back, the agency said.
Urging Bangladesh not to block the boats, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement Friday it was “deeply concerned” about “dramatic scenes” of boatloads of refugees.
"The U.N. refugee agency has first-hand, credible accounts of boats from Myanmar not being enabled to access Bangladeshi territory. These reports indicate women, children, and some wounded are on board,” the statement said.
“There are now a number of boats drifting in the mouth of the Naf River with desperate people on board in need of water, food, and medical care.”
Decades of discrimination in Burma and elsewhere have left the Rohingya, of whom some 800,000 live in Rakhine, stateless and viewed by the United Nations as among the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Aside from Bangladesh, an estimated 30,000 Rohingya live in Malaysia, where several thousand turned out for a protest near the Burmese embassy in the capital Kuala Lumpur Friday, demanding an immediate end to the violence in Rakhine.
The Burmese government regards the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though many of them have lived in the country for generations.
U.S. and other Western nations were monitoring how the Burmese government was handling assistance to victims in the aftermath of the Rakhine violence, which has drawn worldwide attention to the Rohingya.
Following a meeting with U.S. officials on aid for Rakhine state, RNDP Chairman Aye Maung told RFA that his party thinks development assistance from the U.N. in the state has been unevenly biased towards Muslims and has left out Rakhine people.
“All the money they spent went to only one religious group [Muslims], and Buddhist Rakhine got four to five percent at most of all humanitarian assistance there,” he said, after discussing future plans for assistance with U.S. Embassy’s Charge D’Affaires Michael Thurston Thursday.
“If this kind of differentiation based on race and religion continues as it was in the past, we will lead the protest against the U.N. program when U.N. offices open in Rakhine. We also discussed citizenship law and immigration law with him."
“We need to look into [the ethnic strife] deeply and deal with it skillfully,” he said. “We cannot say the problem will be solved merely by shaking hands.”
Thurston also met with leaders of five Muslim groups in Rangoon to discuss the unrest in Rakhine.
“He asked what kind of humanitarian assistance we need and how he can help. We talked about the food needed there. He said he would inform Washington and get the help as soon as possible,” Burma Muslim League secretary Kyaw Khin told RFA.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Meanwhile, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrived Friday in Oslo, where she will pick up her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, following an address to the Swiss parliament.
The 66-year-old democracy campaigner is on a tour of Europe, her second trip abroad after having spent most of the past two decades under house arrest.
At a press conference on the first stop of her trip in Geneva, she said that "the most important lesson" from the Rakhine conflict was "the need for rule of law," which she added was also key to resolving the numerous armed ethnic conflicts in the country emerging from decades of harsh military rule.
Reported by San San Tin and Nayrein Kyaw for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.