BANGKOK — There are reports that at least three people were killed in clashes between Muslim and Buddhist communities in Burma’s restive Rakhine State. The United States and other governments expressed concern about security forces' response in the remote area, but the Burmese government is denying that violence took place.
Rights groups are still trying to gather the names of the alleged victims of the attacks that reportedly occurred early in the morning of January 14 in Du Chee Yar Tan village near Maungdaw in Burma's Rakhine State.
The incident is believed to have been sparked by the disappearance of a police officer who is said to have been extorting bribes from Rohingya villagers. Locals are believed to have retaliated violently, sparking a larger conflict.
Authorities in Burma, also known as Myanmar, have categorically denied that any violence took place. But U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Washington is very concerned by the details they were able to verify.
"We’re saddened to hear reports that several people have been killed, many injured, at least one missing, and hundreds of civilians displaced in violence that included looting and destruction of homes and property. We’re particularly disturbed by reports that security forces may have used excessive force," said Psaki.
Bouts of violence have occurred periodically in Rakhine state since June 2012. But the remote locations of some Muslim-majority villages and tight security mean it remains difficult to confirm fresh reports of violence.
International aid organization Doctors without Borders, whose physicians work in the area, say they treated two wounded people suffering from injuries that resulted from violence, including one gunshot wound. The Myanmar head of mission, Peter-Paul de Groote, said their clinic in the area had seen an unusually low number of patients following the incident.
Matthew Smith of international rights group Fortify Rights, who has been monitoring reports out of Rakhine, says despite the difficulty of confirming facts, there is good reason to be skeptical of the government's claims.
"It's part of their desire to perpetuate this narrative of positive political reform unfolding in the country. Violence against Muslims in the country committed by citizens and security forces is completely inconsistent with that narrative of positive political reform, and I think that's part of the reason why they would be so quick to deny that any violence or abuse has taken place," said Smith.
Smith says the restrictive security policies in place in Rakhine are part of an explicit government policy to prevent the Muslim population from expanding.
Rohingya rights activist Chris Lewa, who heads the Arakan Project, said that her group can confirm the death of at least three Rohingya villagers, who were stabbed to death, and that the incident indicates mounting tensions.
"There was an attack. That's for sure. And it's very clear that Rakhine people from the village have been involved and the police, whether involved or not, we cannot confirm. But we can definitely say they did nothing to stop it,” said Lewa.
Lewa added a notorious group of extremist Buddhists who campaign openly against Muslims in Burma known as "969" is said to have held sermons in the area in December. She said the visit increased tension between the communities.