Burma's President Thein Sein warned Wednesday that violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state is escalating into an armed conflict, linking both local and foreign groups to the clashes and vowing to bring those behind the attacks to justice.
The violence has grown from "normal conflict to armed conflict [and] in some cases, security personnel had been threatened with arms," Thein Sein's office said in a statement as the number of casualties continued to rise after more than a week of renewed clashes between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines.
The authorities had seized about 180 homemade weapons and arrested those behind the arms and "are investigating further" on their connections, the statement said without identifying any groups.
"To prevent further outbreaks of violence, the government is pursuing to bring to justice those who are behind such attacks," it said, adding that the death toll in the violence which erupted anew on Oct. 21 has risen to 89 with 136 wounded, 5,351 houses burned down and 32,231 people left homeless.
Earlier violence in June had left more than 80 dead and displaced 75,000, mostly Rohingyas, who now continue to live in overcrowded camps.
Thein Sein's office described the threats and attacks that had been carried out in Rakhine state as "mob-style violence."
Groups behind the violence have been "well prepared" and the activities of some of them are "well coordinated," it said.
The statement also identified groups—presumably ethnic-based—which have forged a "cease-fire" with the government as among those behind the violence, in addition to "political organizations."
"On the other side, there were some groups inside and outside of Burma [giving] support to make the situation worse," Thein Sein's office said.
In the predominantly Rakhine village of Pa Rain Kone, northeast of Rakhine's capital Sittwe, smoke was still rising from the burned-out shell of a rice processing factory, according to an RFA team which visited the riot-torn area on Wednesday.
During the Oct. 22 riots, two Rohingya men and three Rakhine men were killed in Pa Rain Kone and in the neighboring Rohingya village of Pa Rain, according to residents in the area, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) outside Mrauk U township.
In Pa Rain, a mosque and 204 houses were torched, while in Pa Rain Kone, three houses and the rice factory were razed.
People were still picking through what remained of their homes when the RFA team was at the two villages, separated by a narrow creek, easily traversed by bamboo bridges.
On Tuesday, about 6,000 to 10,000 Rakhines attempted to force out Muslim occupants in Kyauknimaw village on southern Ramree island, drawing gunfire from security forces which left one dead and two wounded, residents said.
The violence at Kyauknimaw occurred near an area where a Buddhist woman was raped and murdered, allegedly by Muslims, in May, which helped spark the June violence.
A local Muslim said that the Muslims in the village were ethnic Karman, who are officially recognized as citizens and as one of Burma's 135 ethnic groups, unlike the Muslim Rohingya who are not considered Burmese even though many of them have lived in the country for generations.
Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon urged the Burmese authorities to take action to bring an end to the lawlessness gripping Rakhine state, with the U.N. chief's spokesperson describing the latest violence as “deeply troubling.”
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, also called on Thien Sein's administration to pursue a policy of integration and long-term reconciliation between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities.
This, he said, "will necessarily involve addressing the underlying causes of the tensions, which includes the endemic discrimination against the Rohingya community.”
Burma's 800,000 stateless Rohingyas, whom the United Nations considers among the world's most persecuted minorities, are seen by the government and by many Burmese as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The Rohingyas bore the brunt of the June and latest violence.
According to the United Nations, nearly all of the homeless and those who fled the violence and are living in refugee camps are Muslims, mostly the Rohingya.
The camps are being stretched beyond capacity in terms of space, shelter, and basic supplies such as food and water amid a lack of doctors to treat the sick and wounded, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) warned Tuesday.
The UNHCR meanwhile appealed to neighboring countries to keep their borders open for those people seeking safety from the unrest in Rakhine state amid reports of another exodus of Rohingyas.
Thousands of Rohingyas have fled Burma in perilous sea journeys to escape persecution, often heading to nearby Bangladesh, Malaysia, and other neighboring nations.
In a report Wednesday, Bangladesh police and a Rohingya advocacy group said about 130 people were missing after a boat carrying Rohingya refugees headed for Malaysia sank off Bangladesh.
Mohammad Farhad, police inspector at Teknaf on the southeast tip of Bangladesh, told Agence France-Presse that one survivor from the sinking on the border between Bangladesh and Burma reported that the boat had about 135 passengers.
"The boat was heading to Malaysia illegally," Farhad said, adding that the 24-year-old survivor was being held in custody.
"He does not know what happened to the others as it was dark, and he was desperate to save his own life."
There were conflicting reports about whether all those on the boat were Rohingyas and also over the time of the sinking, which Bangladesh police said occurred early Sunday.
"We learned that an overcrowded boat with 133 people on board, which was leaving for Malaysia, sank," Chris Lewa, the Bangkok-based director of The Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group, said.
"Six survivors have been rescued by fishing boats. The others are missing," she told AFP.
Lewa however said her organization had been told that the accident happened overnight Monday to Tuesday.
Reported by RFA's Burmese service and Chris Billing. Translated by Win Naing. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.