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At least eight people are confirmed dead in the latest wave of sectarian clashes between Buddhist Arakanese and Rohingya Muslims in western Burma, as the government struggles to restore security in the conflict-torn region.
Dozens more have been injured and nearly 2,000 homes burnt to the ground since riots broke out in Minbya and Mrauk-U townships on Sunday evening, according to UN and government figures.
President Thein Sein on Wednesday ordered an increase in security forces to help quell the violence, which has spread to several townships, including Kyaukphyu and Ann townships in central Arakan state, over the past few days.
A spokesperson for the UN refugee agency told DVB that over a thousand people from Kyaukphyu alone have arrived in Sittwe with more people “coming on boats” every day.
A resident in Thayetoak village in Minbya, home to more than 1,400 Muslims, told DVB that his whole village was burnt down on Monday morning when the community was attending services at a mosque. He says there were only eight soldiers in his village, who were unable to control the mob.
“By the time we left the mosque, the burning had already started,” he said. ‘We just had to flee and couldn’t even pick up the dead bodies.”
Several mosques, schools and monasteries have been torched, according the new UN figures seen by DVB today, which place the death toll in Minbya and Mrauk-U at seven, and affirm that most of the torched houses belonged to Muslims. State media confirmed at least one death in Kyaukphyu.
Thein Sein’s office director Zaw Htay admitted yesterday that the curfew imposed on Tuesday had been ineffective and the situation was “getting out of control”.
“The situation is yet to simmer down even after imposing the curfew, so an order has been sent out to increase security presence in the area for tranquillity and the rule of law,” the director of president’s office, Zaw Htay told DVB. “For example – there will be five police officers instead of one previously.”
Both local Rohingyas and Buddhist Arakanese claim the death toll is higher than reported by the government.
Abbot Tayzathara from Alotawpyit Monastery in Mrauk-U told DVB that hundreds of Arakanese residents had taken shelter in local monasteries.
“There are refugees taking shelter at the monastery – we have set up a camp,” said the abbot. “They are at other monasteries as well – almost 200 in total.”
Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingyas have clashed since early June, when the rape-murder of an ethnic Arakanese girl in late May, allegedly by three Muslims, unleashed a series of revenge attacks and communal riots.
The stateless Rohingya, considered “illegal Bengali immigrants” by authorities and popularly reviled, have since become the target of several high-profile campaigns calling for their expulsion from Burma.
Monks rallied again today in Rangoon calling for the government to “drive out the Bengali kalar dogs”, less than two weeks after successfully urging Thein Sein to suspended plans to open a humanitarian liaison office with the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation in Sittwe.
It follows protests in Sittwe University yesterday, where students rallied against the presence of Rohingya homes near the campus and for an end to “studying with terrorist Bengalis”.
This week’s renewed unrest casts a heavy shadow on the democratic reforms implemented by president Thein Sein since taking office in November 2010. Despite recently urging Burmese people to “change [their] mindset” towards the Rohingya – whom he attempted to hand over to the UN in July – analysts say the president has not done nearly enough.
“The latest violence reinforces the need for a long-term solution to the situation in Rakhine [Arakan] State, involving an inclusive political settlement that protects the rights of all members of the local population,” UK Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire warned today.
The National League for Democracy has also appealed for calm, but the party, led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, is likely to draw ire by some for referring to the Rohingya as “Bengalis” in a statement released today.
Suu Kyi has already attracted rare criticism for failing to vocally condemn the discrimination faced by the stateless Rohingya community, viewed by the UN as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
“We have welcomed the significant reform programme underway in Burma, led by President Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and hope that as a matter of urgency they can work with the local authorities and communities to resolve the situation in Rakhine [Arakan] State in a peaceful and constructive manner,” said Swire.
-Peter Aung and Ye Thu provided additional reporting.