Activists and rights groups have expressed strong concern over rising levels of violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, in defiance of a state of emergency declared by Burmese President Thein Sein on 10 June.
Riots, looting and killings have been reported by Burmese and international media in recent days, as long-simmering ethnic and religious tensions between the state’s majority Rakhine Buddhist population and its minority Muslim Rohingya population reached boiling point.
A cycle of apparent revenge attacks has gripped the state since the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist Rakhine woman by three Muslims on 28 May.
Despite a lull in hostilities on 11 June after the army was dispatched to enforce peace, fresh attacks on the Rohingya have been reported following the departure of the troops.
“We just received information that a group of Rakhines, with the protection of the police, set fire to four Rohingya houses around 10a.m. today,” Tin Soe, the executive director of the Kaladan Press Network, based in Chittagong in neighbouring Bangladesh, told IRIN on 12 June.
“The army came back to stop them, and the police and Rakhines fled. We’ve been told that the army has arrested two police officers and two Rakhines for the arson.” The Kaladan Press Network documents abuses against the Rohingya.
According to rights groups, the Rohingya - an ethnic, linguistic and Muslim minority numbering about 800,000 - have long faced persecution in Myanmar.
Under Burmese law, the Rohingyas are stateless and regularly experience discrimination. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they are viewed as illegal migrants, or elsewhere in the region.
“The spark for the violence was the rape of a Rakhine woman, allegedly by Muslim perpetrators. That led to some very violent responses from some in the Rakhine community, who attacked a bus carrying 16 Muslim missionaries and killed 10 of them,” said Chris Lewa, director of The Arakan Project, an advocacy organization for the Rohingya.
The bus attack provoked riots on 8 June by the Rohingya, and a curfew was declared in five Rakhine townships. However, according to Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, the curfew is not being applied to Rakhine Buddhists, who have been responsible for most of the aggression since the attack on the woman.
“Local officials are siding with the Rakhine Buddhists - they are not neutral. There is a 24-hour curfew on Rohingya, while Rakhine Buddhists are allowed to roam and loot,” he alleged.
Hundreds of Rohingya have reportedly sought refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh, where there are already some 200,000 Rohingya. Almost 30,000 are documented and living in two government camps, where they are being assisted by the UN Refugee Agency, but thousands more have been living illegally near the camps since the Bangladeshi government stopped registering new arrivals years earlier.
The Bangladesh authorities have refused to allow entry to new boats bringing in Rohingya refugees fleeing the latest wave of violence. “Bangladeshi reporters say there are 500 to 600 people on the boats. They have been waiting at the mouth of the Naf River at the border… without food or water,” said Tin Soe. “One woman has already died during childbirth on the boat. Two to three children have also died.”
On 11 June, the UN announced it was temporarily relocating, on a voluntary basis, all non-essential international and national UN and partner NGO staff and their families; a move Robertson says could leave the Rohingya more vulnerable.
During a national television broadcast after his decision to declare a state of emergency, President Thein Sein warned: “The situation could deteriorate and extend beyond Rakhine State if we are killing each other with such sectarianism, endless hatred, desire of vengeance, and anarchy.”
Observers see the strife in Rakhine State as a significant test for the country’s reform-minded government, which came into power just over 18 months ago after years of military rule.