Security forces shoot in the air to scare away rioters in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. Photo by Htoo Tay Zar.
Police are out in force in the streets of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state in western Burma, where violence between a Muslim minority group and local Buddhists threatens to spiral out of control. Because the state is now under emergency rule, it is difficult for international journalists to travel to the zone where the clashes are taking place; however, we were able to reach our Burmese Observers on the ground.
At least 21 people have died since Friday in a cycle of revenge attacks between the Rohingya, a Muslim minority concentrated in Rakhine state, and ethnic Rakhine, who belong to the Buddhist majority. (The Rohingya are not the only Muslims in Burma; about 4 percent of the population is Muslim). Rights organisations worry that the death toll could be much higher
than reported by officials; however, since all aid workers have been evacuated from the area, these numbers are hard to confirm.
Tensions first erupted earlier this month following the rape and killing of a Rhakine woman, allegedly by three Muslims. After news of this incident spread, Rhakine men attacked a bus, beating 10 Muslims to death. Then, on Friday, violence erupted anew in the township of Maungdaw, where security forces reportedly opened fire either on or near a group of Rohingya people. Eyewitnesses have given conflicting accounts as to whether or not the security forces aimed for the crowd.
Since Friday, Maungdaw is on lockdown, but this hasn’t stopped violence from spreading to neighbouring towns, and in particular to the state capital, Sittwe. Hundreds of homes have been torched, and several eyewitnesses have reported street battles between Rohingya and Rhakine residents.
The Rohingya, who live along the border with Bangladesh, are called “Bengalis” by many in Burma because they speak a regional dialect of Bengali. However, they are stateless. Claiming centuries of lineage in Rakhine state, Rohinhya activists have long petitioned for Burmese citizenship, to no avail. This means they have little access to education or health care and face travel restrictions. The UN estimates that there are about 800,000 of them in Burma, mostly in Rakhine state.
This past week, the Rohingya have increasingly been denounced as “illegal immigrants”, “invaders” and “terrorists”, both online and across Burma. In the largest city, Yangon, hundreds of Rakhine held a protest on Monday asking for an end to the violence and for the “removal of Bengali terrorists.” Meanwhile, the New Light of Myanmar, a state-run newspaper, has appealed for calm and unity.
A protest against Rohingya "terrorists" was held at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon on Monday. Video published on YouTube by Burma VJ.