The situation in Burma's troubled Rakhine state remained tense Monday as residents in the capital openly carried weapons such as knives and spears to protect themselves a day after the authorities imposed emergency rule in a bid to contain sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims.
People in Sittwe were concerned about their security despite police and military reinforcements deployed in the capital city where, together with five strife-torn towns, dawn-to-dusk curfews had been imposed after hundreds of houses were razed and thousands left homeless.
The violence began a week ago after the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, triggering a cycle of apparent revenge attacks. An angry mob, mistakenly believing the perpetrators of the rape were on board a bus, beat 10 Muslim passengers to death on June 3.
In renewed clashes since Friday, at least seven people have died and 500 homes have been destroyed, according to officials, but there were fears of a higher toll as Buddhist and Muslim leaders appealed to their communities to exercise restraint and stay calm.
"Sittwe residents are still walking with weapons, like knives. Motorists dare not go out without handmade weapons like knives or spears or bamboo sticks with them," an RFA reporter at the scene said.
Downtown Sittwe appeared secure while tensions continue to simmer in the villages where security forces were patrolling areas bordering the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim areas, the reporter said.
"I met some villagers who came to get some food from Sittwe, and they all wanted the security forces to give protection to their villages. Some villagers said they were not able to sleep for 10 days straight as they have to take care of their safety by themselves, fearing that they would be attacked in the night."
Many people were also not aware of the curfews imposed Sunday in Sittwe, Buthidaung, Thandwe, Kyaukpyu, Maungdaw, and Ramree. One observer said the situation was tense after the curfew announcement.
"We have now ordered troops to protect the airport and the Rakhine villages under attack in Sittwe," Zaw Htay, director of the president's office, told Reuters. "Arrangements are under way to impose a curfew in some other towns."
Rakhine state was named after its dominant, mostly Buddhist ethnic group. But it is also home to a large Muslim population, including the Rohingya, a stateless people described by the U.N. as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
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.
Buddhist monks and Rakhine groups on Monday continued their protests over the violence in Rangoon, calling for a halt to "illegal emigration" of "Bengalis"—a term often used for Muslim communities living near the Burmese border with Bangladesh.
"We are asking to resolve the violence in Rakhine in a peaceful manner, to help local people back to their life and to strictly prevent illegal emigration of Bengalis from a neighboring country that is threatening the local citizenry," said Ashin Rahula, a spokesman for the monks.
Abu Tahay, of the National Democratic Party for Development, which represents the Rohingya, said a number of Rohingya had been shot dead by security forces or killed by Buddhists, Agence France-Presse reported.
"I'm still worried because there are racist Rakhine people. They don't believe in peaceful cohabitation," he said from Rangoon.
Calls for peace
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for an immediate end to the violence.
"The United States continues to be deeply concerned about reports of ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence in western Burma's Rakhine state and urges all parties to exercise restraint and immediately halt all attacks," Clinton said in a statement.
"We urge the people of Burma to work together toward a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic country that respects the rights of all its diverse peoples."
Burmese President Thein Sein appeared on national television on Sunday to appeal for calm and signed an emergency order, effectively allowing the military to take over administrative functions for the Rakhine coastal state that borders Bangladesh.
This is believed to be the first emergency order he has signed since his nominally civilian government came to power in March last year after decades of harsh military rule.
Thein Sein warned that if the violence prevails, it could scuttle his reforms to bring democracy.
The European Union welcomed Thein Sein's "measured response."
"We believe that the security forces are handling this difficult intercommunal violence in an appropriate way," said Maja Kocijanic, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. "We welcome the priority which the Myanmar (Burmese) government is giving to dealing with all ethnic conflicts."
Kyaw Khin, secretary of the All Myanmar Muslim Association, told RFA that the violence stemmed from politics.
"The current conflict is not between Buddhists and Muslims because we have been living together like brothers for so long. We believe this is a political act based on the social situation," he said.
"The All Myanmar Muslim Association would like to request all Muslims living in Burma to approach the problem based on love and forgiveness to reach long-lasting peace."
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung, Tin Aung Khine, Nayrein Kyaw, and Moe Kyaw for RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.