Tuesday, 12 June 2012 11:05
SITTWE: International pressure mounted for an end to religious violence raging in western Myanmar, where armed police on Tuesday patrolled a flashpoint region devastated by rioting and arson.
The United States urged an immediate end to the deadly sectarian unrest, which has forced the United Nations to evacuate foreign workers from Rakhine state, now under a state of emergency.
At least seven people have died since Friday, according to officials, in a cycle of apparent revenge attacks between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that presents a major test of fragile reforms since army rule ended last year.
Rights organisations fear the real toll could be much higher with one advocacy group which works with the Rohingya, The Arakan Project, saying dozens of people had been killed.
AFP could not verify that information and its team of reporters has been unable to visit many of the affected areas for security reasons.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday called for "all parties to exercise restraint", adding the "the United States continues to be deeply concerned" about the situation.
The United Nations has begun pulling out more than 40 workers -- including foreigners -- and their families from a base in Maungdaw, an area home to large numbers of Rohingya where clashes have also been reported.
Warning that the violence is running "out of control", New York-based Human Rights Watch called for international observers to be deployed in Rakhine to "put all sides on notice that they were being closely watched."
"The government needs to be protecting threatened communities, but without any international presence there, there's a real fear that won't happen," said Elaine Pearson, HRW's deputy director.
Gunfire echoed across the outskirts of the state capital Sittwe on Monday as groups of men, who appeared to be ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, roamed the streets wielding sticks and knives. A dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed.
Rakhine, a predominantly Buddhist state bordering Bangladesh, is home to a large number of Muslims including the Rohingya, described by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya to be foreigners, while many citizens see them as illegal immigrants and view them with hostility, describing them as "Bengalis".
An AFP reporter witnessed heavy security overnight in Sittwe, as rumours swirled among nervous residents that groups of Rohingyas were approaching the heart of the city, despite the security lockdown.
Rioting has seen hundreds of homes torched across the state, forcing both Buddhists and Rohingya to flee seeking safety.
Bangladesh border guards Monday turned back eight boats carrying more than 300 Rohingya Muslims, including weeping women and children, as it attempts to prevent a influx of refugees reaching its shores.
Tensions erupted following the recent rape and murder of a Rakhine woman, allegedly by three Muslims. In response an angry Buddhist mob beat 10 Muslims to death earlier this month.
The violence poses a serious challenge to Myanmar's reformist President Thein Sein, as the nation takes tentative steps towards democracy after decades of authoritarian rule.
A commentary published Tuesday in government mouthpiece the New Light of Myanmar warned continued ethnic strife could also put the unity of the country in jeopardy.
Under the headline "A single spark may well set the whole hillside on fire", the piece urged unity across Myanmar's dozens of ethnic groups.
Animosity between local Buddhists and the Rohingya appears increasingly intractable with both sides trading angry accusations over the surge in violence, much of it playing out over social networking websites.
Myanmar's Muslims of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent account for an estimated four percent of the roughly 60 million population in a country where for many people Buddhism forms an intrinsic part of national identity.
According to the UN, there are nearly 800,000 Rohingya living in Myanmar, mostly in Rakhine. Another one million or more are thought to live in other countries.
Around 600 Rohingya on Tuesday demonstrated in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur against the raging unrest in Myanmar, demanding UN intervention to restore peace.
Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2012