News / Asia

Sectarian Violence Spreads in Burma

This picture taken on October 10, 2012 shows an elderly Muslim Rohingya man pictured outside his tent at the Dabang Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, located on the outskirts of Sittwe, capital of Burma's western Rakhine state.
This picture taken on October 10, 2012 shows an elderly Muslim Rohingya man pictured outside his tent at the Dabang Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, located on the outskirts of Sittwe, capital of Burma's western Rakhine state.
Daniel Schearf
Renewed sectarian violence between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine is spreading in Burma’s western Rakhine state.  At least two people were reported killed and there are concerns the death toll may grow.

Authorities say fighting erupted late Tuesday in two more towns, Kyaukpyu and Myebon.

Burma's state media said communal violence has left more than 1,000 homes burned since Sunday.

The New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported two people were killed in the fighting, while unconfirmed reports say casualty figures are much higher.

Al Haji Nyunt Maung Shein is chairman of Burma's Islamic Religious Affairs Council.  He says they received reports as many as 178 Muslims and Buddhists were killed, but were unable to independently confirm the figures.

"Still the violence is going on in Rakhine state, especially in Kyaukpyu area and Myinbya area last night.  And recently they are suffering so much.  And almost all, nearly 2,000 houses are burnt," he said.

The council cancelled celebration of the Islamic religious festival Eid al-Adha out of concern for security.

It is not clear what started this week's unrest.  

Human Rights Watch Burma researcher Matthew Smith says the remoteness of Rakhine state is partly to blame. But he says prejudice also plays a role.

"This is an issue that has not been covered in any sort of adequate way.  And, the sympathies that few people have in the country for the plight of the Rohingya are certainly drowned out by opposing viewpoints," said Smith.

The Rohingya Muslims are not recognized as citizens in Burma, despite many living there for generations.  Most Buddhists in Burma consider them illegal migrants from Bangladesh.  Their legal status leaves them open to exploitation, and the United Nations calls them one of the most abused minorities in the world.  

Toronto-based democracy activist and Burma analyst Vijay Sappani says the government needs to offer the Rohingya better protection.

"I think the long-term solution is to find some form of a citizenship status or some form of a status that can be given to them so that there is a law which is clearly defined and that can be implemented," said Sappani. "The challenge right now is that there is a law that is fairly discriminative and the majority do support it."

The government withdrew an offer last week for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to open an office in Rakhine State, following Buddhist-monk-led protests.

Tensions between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims broke out in June over allegations in state media that Rohingya men raped a Rakhine girl.  A Rakhine mob attacked and killed a busload of Rohingya and spiraling revenge attacks left close to 90 people dead and tens of thousands homeless.

A government appointed investigation commission is to deliver a report on the violence in November.

Victor Beattie in Washington D.C. contributed to this story

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Comment Sorting
by: Ronald Chakma from: CHT, Bangladesh
October 24, 2012 7:19 AM
I agree with Toronto-based Burma analyst Vijay Sappani, the conflict in Rakhine state is very complicated. It's not as simple as conflict between minority and majority. The Rakhine and Burmese people view the Bengali Muslims at best as illegal immigrants and at worst as invaders. Their view is well justified. The British Imperial Gazette in colonia time described the Muslims of Rakhine as Chittagonian Bengalis. The East India company official Francis Buchanan visited the southern Chittagong or present day Cox's Bazar in 1799. He did not see any Bengali Muslims south of Chittagong city. The inhabitants were mongoloid tribes of Rakhine. Calling the Bengali Muslims of Rakhine as minority is distortion of history and violation of civilized norms.
In Response

by: Nik from: US
October 25, 2012 1:01 PM
Rohingyas were in Arakan before Burma as nation was even formed. Sick is your attempt in trying to justify ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas by the majority buddists. If Rohingyas are invaders then so are American and Australians and many more, I guess according to you they too must meet the same fate then.
In Response

by: Nik from: US
October 25, 2012 12:56 PM
Western nations that also dictate action at UN are preparing military action in Mali under the pretext of simply shrines being destroyed while taking no action against and even continuously allowing ethnic cleansing of Muslim Rohingya men, women and children in Burma. So much for Justice, their motive are clear.

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