BANKGOK - The U.N.’s special envoy to Burma, Vijay Nambiar, returned Thursday from a visit to Burma's western Rakhine state, where sectarian violence has killed 21 people and destroyed scores of homes.
Nambiar said he spoke with people caught up in the violence who are still "in a state of shock," and unwilling to return to their homes. There has been widespread violence in the area recently between Buddhists and Muslims, who are members of the ethnic minority known as the Rohingya.
Speaking to VOA by phone from the Burmese capital, Rangoon, he said the city of Maungdaw, where the conflict erupted, is now largely calm, but that the situation in the state's capital Sittwe is still tenuous and he was unable to visit some areas. Nambiar confirmed that 21 people died in the fighting.
Nambiar praised both the Border Affairs minister who traveled with him, and President Thein Sein, who responded by sending in the military to bring the situation under control, and declaring a state of emergency he described as "prompt, firm, and sensitive."
"This is an issue which has the potential of impacting on the entire reform process and requires to be handled very sensitively and in line with the international norms of international conduct," he said.
Burmese President Thein Sein said he is committed to equal justice and the rule of law in dealing with the aftermath of the conflict, he added.
Rohingya have long been viewed by the government and most Burmese as immigrants who are not entitled to citizenship or other benefits of the state. The recent fighting has led to a rash of inflamed rhetoric on websites and in domestic media coverage against Rohingya.
Violence broke out on June 3 when a mob of Buddhists in Rakhine allegedly attacked a bus and killed 10 Rohingya passengers in apparent retaliation for an earlier rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Rohingya.
It will take time to address the longstanding ethnic and sectarian tensions, said Nambiar.
"I think increasingly everybody is conscious of the need to move away from such kind of ethnic stereotypes and characterizations of this nature because they realize that that is harmful to the entire project of reform," he said. "And I think while it is true that the messages that are being purveyed by being stressed by the top leadership need to filter down to the lower levels and there is still a lot of work to be done."
U.N. refugee agency official Preeta Law, a deputy representative in Burma, warned the fighting could have an impact on the effort to resettle Rohingya refugees now living in camps across the border in Bangladesh. "Of course in a situation of this kind of violence that's happened right now, in the immediate term, this would not be something that we would be looking at at this time," Law said.
Boats carrying women and children fleeing the violence have been turned back by the Bangladeshi government, despite the agency's plea to keep their border open.