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.

“My family and I haven’t gone out in days. We’re afraid that if we do, we might get killed”

Maung (not his real name) lives in Maungdaw, where he works as a vendor. He is Rohingya. We were able to speak to him briefly by phone.
On Friday, I and many others went to the mosque near my house to pray for the Muslims who were killed in the bus attack. Security forces soon arrived, and asked us to stop praying. We continued, and so they opened fire. One person was killed; two others wounded. Everyone panicked and ran back to their houses.
Friends told me that later that night, in the nearby village of Napala, some Rohingya decided to get revenge by burning Rhakine people’s houses. After that, the violence spread to the state’s capital, Sittwe. Maungdaw, however, remains paralysed.
There’s a curfew at night, but we don’t dare go out during the day, either. I have a wife and four children; we haven’t left our home since Friday. We’re afraid that if we go out, we might get killed. There are soldiers and security forces everywhere, patrolling the streets. We’ve heard a lot of gunshots, and have seen smoke from nearby houses being burned. I’m afraid we’re going to run out of food. I don’t know what to do. If it doesn’t calm down, we will have to try to flee – but I don’t know where we’ll go, since I hear Rohingya people who are trying to cross into Bangladesh are being turned around.
At this point, I believe the goal of the local Rhakine people, backed by the authorities, is to either chase us out, or kill us.
Police patrolling a street in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state in western Burma. According to our Observer Htoo Tay Zar, who took this photo on Tuesday, they were helping put out a fire at a Hindu shrine.

“I saw Rohingya and Rakhine fighting each other with homemade weapons, like swords and slingshots”

Htoo Tay Zar is a blogger and designer who lives in Yangon. He travelled to Rhakine state on Monday to take photos of the situation. We video-chatted with him by Skype on Tuesday, when he was in the state’s capital, Sittwe. He showed us heavy plumes of smoke coming from the city’s downtown area.
Rohingya people set fire to the downtown area. A lot of the houses are already burned down. They also set fire to a Hindu shrine. When I arrived in the city, I saw local Rahkine people and police trying to put the fire out and save the shrine.
Our Observer, through Skype, showed us smoke billowing from downtown Sittwe.
They’ve also set fire to many Buddhist temples, so it appears as if they’re trying to turn this into a religious conflict. Some angry Rakhine, in response, tried to burn down a mosque, but the police stopped them.
I saw Rohingya and Rakhine fighting each other with homemade weapons, like swords and slingshots. I heard sounds that resembled Molotov cocktails, too. Many Rakhine are guarding their homes with homemade weapons. A lot of the Rohingya have fled to the mountains, but some have remained here in Sittwe to fight. The police are trying to get the situation under control, but they aren’t shooting at anyone – I’ve seen them shoot in the air, just to frighten people.
I think this conflict was started by a few Rohingya people, and that not all are to blame. Those who are peaceful should be allowed to stay, and maybe even get citizenship – but not those who are attacking local residents. The Burmese government should consider taking action on illegal migrants, because there are so many Rohingya here in Rakhine state, and they have not assimilated. Most of them cannot even speak the local language or Burmese.
A house that was set on fire in Sittwe. Photo by Htoo Tay Zar.
A Rakhine resident of Sittwe tries to put out a fire with muddy water. Photo by Htoo Tay Zar.
A protest in the country's largest city, Yangon. "Bengali" is what most Burmese call Rohingya people. Photo published on Facebook by Burma VJ.