Homes burn, gunfire heard in Myanmar ethnic violence

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

SITTWE, Myanmar/DHAKA -- Gunshots rang out and residents fled blazing homes in western Myanmar on Tuesday as security forces struggled to contain deadly ethnic and religious violence that has killed at least a dozen people and forced thousands to flee.

The conflict pitting ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against stateless Rohingya Muslims in coastal Rakhine state marks some of the worst sectarian unrest recorded in Myanmar in years. President Thein Sein has declared an emergency and warned that the spiraling violence could threaten the democratic reforms tentatively taking shape in Myanmar after half a century of military rule.

On Tuesday in the regional capital, Sittwe, police fired live rounds into the air to disperse Rohingyas who could be seen burning homes in one neighborhood. Hordes of people ran to escape the chaos.

“Smoke is billowing from many directions and we are scared,” said Ma Thein, an ethnic Rakhine resident in Sittwe, where dark smoke from numerous fires covered the skyline into the late afternoon. “The government should send in more security forces to protect both communities.”

Truckloads of security forces have been deployed in Sittwe for days, and much of the port city was reported calm, including its main road. But homes were burning in three or four districts that have yet to be pacified.

In one, police fired skyward to separate hundreds-strong mobs wielding sticks and stones; in another, soldiers helped move 1,000 Muslims by trucks to safer areas.

Ma Thein said that some people were running short of food and water, with banks, schools and markets closed. Some small shops opened early Tuesday to sell fish and vegetables early in the morning to residents who braved the tense streets.

Boats Turned Back

Bangladesh refused three big boats carrying about 1,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar as they approached land Tuesday, after 500 refugees were turned back in recent days, officials said.

“They have been chased away,” police official Jahangir Alam said by phone on Saint Martins Island, a Bay of Bengal isle the boats approached. “We are keeping our eyes open so that nobody can enter Bangladesh illegally.”

Afterward, administrators arranged announcements by loudspeakers for islanders to be vigilant to prevent Rohingya Muslims from entering Bangladesh, said Nurul Amin, a local government official in the island.

Bangladesh said earlier it sent back 11 boats over the past three days packed with about 500 Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar. Local authorities in Bangladesh's border districts have been asked to remain alert and increase vigilance.

A Foreign Ministry statement said the neighboring countries are maintaining close contacts to ensure that developments in Myanmar's Rakhine state do not have any “transboundary spillover.”

The United Nations' refugee agency estimates 800,000 Rohingya live in Rakhine. Myanmar considers them illegal immigrants, effectively rendering them stateless. Rights groups say they face extortion, land confiscation, forced evictions, and other human rights abuses, and thousands attempt to flee Myanmar annually.

Bangladesh says Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for centuries and Myanmar should recognize them as citizens.

Human Rights Watch called on the government to “take all necessary steps” to protect at-risk communities and questioned the descision to call a state of emergency, which allows the military to take over administrative functions in the area.

“Given the Burmese army's brutal record of abuses ... putting the military in charge of law enforcement could make matters worse,” said Elaine Pearson, the New York-based group's deputy Asia director. Myanmar's former name of Burma is preferred by many activists.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged a halt to the violence and a transparent investigation.

State-run newspapers reported that 4,100 people who lost homes had taken refuge in Buddhist monasteries, schools and in a police headquarters the towns of Maungdaw and Buthidaung, both in Rakhine state.

State media has reported eight dead in Maungdaw, and an AP journalist saw the corpses of four people killed in Sittwe.

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