Some 22,500 people, mostly Muslim Rohingya, have been displaced by the latest communal violence in western Burma as the official death toll rose to 84, officials and relief agencies said Sunday.
A United Nations team returned from a visit to the violence-hit Rakhine state, saying it saw "large scale destruction of houses" and calling on the government to swiftly restore rule of law after one week of renewed clashes between the stateless Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines.
In a sign of growing alarm in the region over the conflict, the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) warned of the risk of a "radicalization" of the Rohingyas, who rights groups say bore the brunt of the conflict.
In Sittwe, the Rakhine capital, the situation appeared calm but RFA reporters at the scene noted a heavy presence of rifle-toting police and military, especially around mosques and Muslim enclaves.
At the key Te Chaung Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Sittwe, Rohingya victims continued to pour into the center and spoke passionately about their plight, essentially complaining of poor treatment and saying they wanted their land back and to be recognized as citizens.
The camp is crowded, and most of the refugees are living in tents provided by the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. There seemed to be plenty of food around, including a thriving market, but refugees did, however, complain of a shortage of medical supplies.
The government indicated to the U.N. that more than 22,500 people have been displaced from their homes and over 4,600 houses have been burnt in villages in at least eight townships in Rakhine state, the U.N. said in a statement.
“I am gravely concerned by the fear and mistrust that I saw in the eyes of the displaced people in both communities," U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Ashok Nigam said after visiting the affected areas with the Burmese Minister for Border Affairs Thein Htay.
Action against instigators
Burmese President Thein Sein, concerned that his reform program could be scuttled by the new clashes, has ordered actions against instigators of the violence, the worst since June when another 80-odd people died and 75,000 mostly Rohingyas were displaced and continue to live in temporary shelters.
Some 800,000 Rohingyas live in Rakhine state, where ethnic Rakhines form a majority. Rohingya residents are regarded as outsiders and immigrants from Bangladesh even though many have lived in Burma for generations.
The U.N. considers the Rohingya one the world's most oppressed groups.
Nigam welcomed Thein Sein's statement, saying, "It is critically important that the government ensures that the rule of law prevails, prevents any further spreading of this violence and continues to communicate strong messages of harmony.”
“The violence, fear and mistrust is contrary to the democratic transition and economic and social development that Myanmar (Burma) is committed to. It should not become an impediment to progress for all people of Myanmar,” he added.
The villages affected by the violence are in Myebon, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Ramree, Kyauk Phyu, Kyauktaw, Rathedaung and Pauktaw townships.
The U.N. said that the government is verifying additional number of displaced people in other locations and mostly Rohingyas who have taken to the boats from Kyauk Phyu, where the Muslim quarter was nearly totally devastated, according to satellite images observed by a human rights group.
"The U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator advocated with the government for these people to come on shore to safe places and be given immediate support," the statement said.
One teenager at the Te Chaung refugee camp said he and his family arrived at the center on Thursday after many hours of floating at the bay of Kyauk Phyu.
"We were not welcomed by local military units who guarded Sittwe area. We have been fed, every day, with little rice. I saw many kids and many other people in this camp," said the teenager, from the Peik Seik ward in Kyauk Phyu.
"Almost all of us who arrived at the Te Chaung camp were [among a group officially recognized as citizens]," he said.
A Rakhine in Kyauk Phyu told Reuters news agency that Rakhines and Muslims had fought each other with knives, swords, sticks and slingshots.
Overwhelmed, the Muslims then "set fire to their own houses as a last resort and ran away," he said, estimating that 80 to 100 Muslim boats left Kyauk Phyu that day.
An aid worker at Minbya said food shortage is a concern as 2,000 refugees, mostly Rakhines, took shelter in the area.
Thein Tun Aye, an advocate for the Rakhine Buddhists and co-founder of the Wan-Lark Rural Development Foundation, called the Rohingyas "intruders" and said there was no solution to the conflict.
He also accused Thein Sein's administration of using "divide and conquer" techniques to control both communities.
Win Myaing, spokesman for the Rakhine state government, said the precise number of refugees has not been determined.
Cargo planes from Turkey sent humanitarian aid to Sittwe at the weekend.
In response to the government’s request, the United Nations and its humanitarian partners are starting food distribution and shelter—two of the most urgent needs—in addition to non-food items, water and sanitation, health and hygiene, the U.N. statement said.
"Timely action and unhindered access are critical for life-saving assistance to reach these people."
State television reported the death toll has climbed to 84 from 67, with 129 injured over the past week. Rights groups say the casualties are expected to be much higher.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan called for urgent regional attention to the Rakhine violence, in an interview with the Bangkok Post newspaper.
"The situation is deteriorating and there is now a risk of a radicalization of the Rohingya. This would not be good for anyone," he said. "This would have wider strategic and security implications for the region."
"Can you imagine the Malacca Straits (a key shipping route in Southeast Asia) becoming a zone of violence like the waters off Somalia? This would jeopardize East Asian and Southeast Asian economic security," he said.
He also said that the conflict has been presented as an Islamic issue when it is not.
"It is a political, democratic, human rights and constitutional issue, and has direct implications on political reform and national reconciliation processes in Myanmar."
Reported by RFA's Burmese service and Chris Billing. Translated by Win Naing. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.