The death toll in renewed clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma’s Rakhine state continued to rise Friday, prompting a warning by the United Nations that the violence threatened to derail the country’s process of political reform.
A Rakhine state official said that at least 64 people had been killed and scores more wounded since the violence erupted on Sunday.
Thirty-four men and 30 women were among the casualties, according to Win Myaing, a spokesman for the Rakhine state government, clarifying earlier international reports that the death toll had surpassed 100.
Residents have said that some of the casualties occurred when the military opened fire in an apparent bid to stem the violence, the worst since June when riots left more than 80 dead and 75,000 mostly Rohingya residents displaced.
Thousands of homes have also been burned to the ground in the latest clashes, adding to the 3,000 homes destroyed in June.
Win Myaing said the humanitarian situation was reaching a critical point and that aid was desperately needed in the region.
“Food rations are being distributed to those who are now homeless. But we don’t know how long we can do this as we do not have enough for the long run,” he said.
“Some U.N. and nongovernmental organization relief teams are already carrying out their work in certain places.”
According to a posting on the Facebook page of Hmuu Zaw, director of Burmese President Thein Sein’s office, two C-130 cargo planes from Turkey arrived in Rangoon on Thursday carrying relief goods which were sent to Rakhine state Friday for distribution to both the Rohingya and Rakhine communities.
Win Myaing said that the situation had returned to normal in most affected areas of Rakhine state after security forces were deployed to keep the peace.
“Until the past few days, there were not enough security personnel in those areas as they are too remote and there hadn’t been any problem earlier,” he said.
“Now the security forces are reinforced and everything is quiet today.”
Riots had occurred in Mrauk U, Minbya, Rathedaung, and Kyauktaw townships, north of the state capital of Sittwe, and southern Rakhine’s Kyauk Phyu city and Mebyon township, officials and residents said. Some of the areas have been placed under emergency rule.
The clashes prompted the U.N. to issue in its strongest statement to date on the communal issue.
In a statement Friday, the world body called the violence “deeply troubling,” saying it threatened Burma’s internationally heralded reform process.
“The widening mistrust between the communities is being exploited by militant and criminal elements to cause large-scale loss of human lives, material destruction, displaced families, as well as fear, humiliation and hatred affecting the people from all walks of life,” the statement said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called on Burmese authorities to “take urgent and effective action to bring under control all cases of lawlessness,” as well as “vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric,” the statement said.
“If this is not done, the fabric of social order could be irreparably damaged and the reform and opening up process being currently pursued by the government is likely to be jeopardized,” it said, adding that the U.N. would do “whatever is necessary” to alleviate the situation.
Ban Ki-Moon had earlier indicated the importance of the Rakhine situation being “treated carefully because of the potential wider implications … on the overall reform process in Burma” while speaking on the sidelines of the September U.N. General Assembly.
Clashes in Rakhine state this week followed demonstrations in cities across the country against plans by the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to provide aid to Rohingyas reeling from the June violence.
International rights groups have said the brunt of the June violence was borne by the Rohingya, whom the U.N. considers a stateless people and one of the most persecuted groups in the world.
Thein Sein, who has launched reform after his nominally civilian government took over in March last year following decades of misrule by the former military junta, is in a dilemma over the stateless Rohingya issue.
Concessions to them could make him unpopular among the largely Buddhist population, but ill-treatment of the Muslim group would anger Western countries that have eased sanctions in response to human rights reforms.
Meanwhile, a Buddhist monk named Manithara in Maungdaw said that hundreds of Rohingyas had moved to the port town north of Sittwe, raising concerns amongst members of the Rakhine community because of historic clashes between the two groups in the area.
“About 800 Muslims have moved to Maungdaw and the town’s residents are worried it could mean trouble because of the memories of 1942, when Rohingyas killed nearly 20,000 Rakhines in 200 villages in the area’s worst riots,” Manithara told RFA’s Burmese service on Friday.
In 1942, Japan invaded Burma—then under British rule—and forced British troops out of the country. The ensuing power vacuum saw considerable communal violence, including in Rakhine state where ethnic Rakhine are believed to have killed as many as 5,000 Rohingyas, according to various published reports.
The Rohingyas retaliated, massacring up to 20,000 Rakhines by some estimates.
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.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.