Fifty-six people have been killed and thousands of homes destroyed by fire in western Burma’s Rakhine state in new violence between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists that erupted at the weekend, according to a state official.
Residents told RFA’s Burmese service that some of the casualties occurred when the military opened fire in an apparent bid to restore order.
Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said that the 25 men and 31 women were killed as the violence spread across townships by Thursday, foreign news agencies reported.
He said that 64 people were also injured in the clashes. Casualties included both Rohingyas and Rakhines.
The violence was reported 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 fighting was the most serious since violence in June left more than 80 dead, 3,000 homes destroyed and 75,000 residents displaced, mostly Rohingyas, now living in temporary camps.
Authorities said they were unclear what caused the resumption of violence Sunday night. The Rohingya and Rakhine communities have blamed each other for starting the clashes.
Zaw Htay, director of President Thein Sein’s office in the capital Naypyidaw, had told RFA on Wednesday that the violence had escalated beyond the control of the authorities, but said that reinforcements would be sent to the area to ensure that further clashes were prevented.
“Although martial law had been imposed, the security forces were unable to control the situation. That’s why there have been additional riots in Minbya, Kyauk Pyhu and Mrauk U,” he said.
“The president has now instructed the military to send reinforcements into the conflict areas.”
Aid and mediation
The renewed tensions 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.
Some 800,000 Rohingyas live in Rakhine state, where ethnic Rakhines form a majority.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department urged Burma to allow full humanitarian access to the affected areas, launch a dialogue aimed at reconciliation, and open investigations into the violence.
"We join the international community and call on authorities within the country, including the government, civil and religious leaders to take immediate action to halt the ongoing violence," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.
Ko Aung Myat Kyaw, a member of parliament for the Rakhine Nationals Development Party, said the government was taking steps to provide aid and to mediate between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities.
“The state government is working to solve the problems. State ministers have gone to the places where these incidents are taking place and are mediating. The central government is not in a position to mediate effectively,” he said.
‘Shoot on sight’
Residents said the authorities had opened fire in a bid to control the violence and that both Rakhines and Rohingyas suffered casualties.
“The authorities … fired their guns and dispersed the crowds and confiscated some weapons,” Ko Aung Soe Thein, a Rakhine resident of Kyauk Phyu told RFA on Wednesday, blaming the Rohingyas for starting the clashes.
Ko Aung Soe Thein said that he had seen two Rakhines killed in the melee and more than 20 wounded and that he spotted the body of one Muslim in the street.
“[The situation now] is not at the point where you can feel safe … We haven’t slept since [Tuesday]. Almost the entire town has not slept,” he said.
A Rakhine villager in Mrauk U said that authorities had been ordered to “shoot on sight if groups of five people or more gather together” after a 5:00 p.m. curfew.
"Tensions were high between the two sides and the situation was such that if one side could, it would set fire to the other's property. At that time, the security forces shot at people,” the villager said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Maung Ni, a Rohingya resident of Kyauk Phyu, said hundreds of Rohingyas fled to take shelter on boats in the port city’s coast after their houses were burned down.
“We don’t have our houses anymore. Our houses are [burned]. The [Rakhines] came down on us with knives and sticks. That’s why we are running away in a motor boat,” Maung Ni said.
“Two mosques were burned. When the Rakhine crowds approached, the Rohingyas resisted with homemade weapons.”
Maung Ni said the military fired when they were unable to control the situation.
“The military opened fire into the crowd and three Rohingya children were killed and around 10 others wounded,” he said.
Meanwhile, security had been tightened Thursday in Kyauk Phyu, where clashes on Tuesday night led to the burning of two mosques.
Reports said those made homeless by the fires and who had remained in the city had been moved to a soccer stadium for shelter. Some homeless Rakhines were provided shelter in monasteries.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Win Naing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.