SITTWE, Myanmar — With residents cowering indoors, securityforces patrolling a tense town in western Myanmar collected bodiesMonday from homes burned to ashes in some of the country'sdeadliest sectarian bloodshed in years. The conflict along ethnic and religious lines has left at leastseven people dead and hundreds of homes torched since Friday andposes one the biggest tests yet for Myanmar's new government as ittries to reform the nation after generations of military rule. Thehandling of the unrest will draw close scrutiny from Westernpowers, which have praised President Thein Sein's administrationand rewarded it by easing years of harsh economic sanctions. Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the region late Sundayand pleaded for an end to the "endless anarchic vengeance," warningthat if the situation spun out of control, it could jeopardize thedemocratic reforms he has begun. |
"Sittwe city center is quiet at the moment but we are afraid atnighttime. We are afraid that the Rohingya Muslims would come inboats and torch the villages along the river. We have not sleptwell for nearly a week," Sittwe resident Mya Thein said afterdarkness fell Monday. Even as truckloads of soldiers patrolled the city, there wasscattered violence again, as smoke from burning houses could beseen in at least one neighborhood about 15 minutes drive fromdowntown Sittwe. Soldiers and police rushed to the area, while Rakhine civilians,men and women, armed themselves with sticks and bamboo spears withsharpened ends to guard their homes.
The United Nations said it had temporarily relocated 44 of its 150personnel in Rakhine state. Local state television said cargo andpassenger boats to Sittwe were suspended. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged a halt to theviolence and called on authorities to conduct a quick, transparentinvestigation.
"The situation in Rakhine State underscores the critical need formutual respect among all ethnic and religious groups and forserious efforts to achieve national reconciliation in Burma," shesaid in a statement. Myanmar is also known as Burma. Violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and members of a Muslimminority who call themselves Rohingyas erupted Friday in Rakhinestate and spread Saturday to Sittwe. The unrest – trigged by the rape and murder last month of aBuddhist girl, allegedly by three Muslims, and the June 3 lynchingof 10 Muslims in apparent retaliation – stems fromlong-standing tensions.
The region's Rohingya Muslims are seen by the government as illegalmigrants from Bangladesh and are not officially recognized amongMyanmar's ethnic minorities. Although some are recent settlers,many have lived in Myanmar for generations. The government positionhas rendered the Rohingyas effectively stateless, and rights groupssay they have long suffered discrimination. "It's a tinderbox," said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia directorfor Human Rights Watch.
"These people very much feel like they'retrapped in a box, surrounded by enemies and there is an extremelyhigh level of frustration." The Rohingyas' plight gained international attention in 2009 whenfive boatloads of haggard migrants fleeing Myanmar were detained byThai authorities and allegedly sent adrift at sea with little foodand water. Hundreds were believed to have drowned. UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, estimates 800,000Rohingya live in Myanmar's mountainous Rakhine state borderingBangladesh. Thousands attempt to flee every year to Bangladesh,Malaysia and elsewhere in the region, trying to escape a life ofabuse that rights groups say includes forced labor, violenceagainst Rohingya women and restrictions on movement, marriage andreproduction.
In Sittwe on Monday, shops, schools and banks were closed,including the city's main market and some ethnic Rakhines wieldinghomemade swords could be seen guarding their homes or ridingmotorcycles. An Associated Press photographer in the town saw manyhomes burned or ransacked in the city's Mi Zan district. Police retrieved four corpses, including one found in a river thatwas believed to be that of an ethnic Rakhine woman. The other threebodies were wrapped in blankets, but it was not clear who theywere. Police evacuated two Muslim families from the same area for theirsecurity because their Muslim homes were located among houses ofethnic Rakhines, who are predominantly Buddhist.
According to a list provided Monday by the Rakhine NationalitiesDevelopment Party, 12,074 people have been resettled at temporarycamps in four townships of the state. There was no breakdown of howmany lost their homes, and how many fled for protection. The partyis one of the major parties associated with the country's ethnicminorities, and won 35 parliamentary seats in the 2010 elections. Thein Sein's state of emergency was his first since becomingpresident and allows the military to take over administrativefunctions for Rakhine. In a nine-minute speech televised nationally Sunday night, TheinSein said that the violence was fanned by dissatisfaction harboredby different religious and ethnic groups, hatred and the desire forvengeance.
"If this endless anarchic vengeance and deadly acts continue, thereis the danger of them spreading to other parts and beingoverwhelmed by subversive influences," he said. "If that happens,it can severely affect peace and tranquility and our nascentdemocratic reforms and the development of the country." Thein Sein was elected with the backing of the military, butdiscarded many of its repressive policies to seek accommodationwith the pro-democracy movement of Nobel peace laureate Aung SanSuu Kyi. Clearly concerned that rumors could inflame the situation, thechief minister of Yangon Region, Myint Swe, warned editors andreporters from local journals Sunday to avoid writing reports thatcould instigate further violence. Myint Swe warned that anyone who violates laws against underminingstate security or spreading news that could cause disorder couldface jail terms as long as seven years.
Thein Sein's government has made a major loosening of restrictionson the press under the recent reforms. ____ Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washingtoncontributed to this report.
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