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June 29, 2017

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US praises Myanmar over response to sectarian strife

YANGON -- The United States on Tuesday praised Myanmar's response to recent deadly sectarian fighting, despite criticism by rights group Amnesty International that Muslim Rohingyas are still fleeing arbitrary arrest by border forces.

The vote of confidence from Washington will be a welcome relief to reformist President Thein Sein after mob violence in western Myanmar last week threatened to derail the country's move towards democracy.

After days of clashes between Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, the president on June 10 declared a state of emergency in Rakhine state, sent security reinforcements, imposed a curfew and made a televised address.

"This is something we would not have seen in the past. The government is trying to help everybody who needs it whether that is Rakhine Buddhists or Muslims," Michael Thurston, the U.S. Embassy's charge d'affaires in Myanmar, told Reuters in his office in Yangon.

Despite the upbeat U.S. assessment, much of northern Rakhine state remains a no-go area from which journalists and independent observers are banned, making it impossible to verify the government's version of events.

The World Food Program said on Tuesday the recent violence had displaced 90,000 people, or three times more than the government's estimate. This has raised fears that the official death toll of 50 could also rise dramatically.

There has also been no mention in state media of hundreds of Rohingyas attempting to flee into neighboring Bangladesh, a point London-based Amnesty International highlighted in a report on Tuesday.

"The basic humanitarian needs of these people must be met immediately, as many still lack adequate food, water, shelter, and medical attention," Amnesty said, urging the government to allow local and international aid agencies "full and unhindered access" to all displaced people.

Amnesty said an estimated 1,500 people had been illegally denied refuge across the border last week by Bangladesh. Bangladesh border guards detained at least 150 Rohingya men on Monday trying to enter in small boats.

"They were fleeing a wave of mostly arbitrary arrests by Myanmar border forces."

The clashes follow a year of dramatic political change, including the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, the signing of peace deals with ethnic minority rebel groups and the holding of by-elections dominated by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party.

All this had persuaded the United States and Europe to suspend economic sanctions.

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