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Burma's Divided Rakhine Tests Old Friendships

Communal violence in Burma's Rakhine state this year left over 170 people dead and displaced more than 100,000. The fighting between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has divided neighborhoods, turning friends into enemies.

Before it burned down, Myo Thu Gyi village was home to 70 households of both Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

Village chief Oo Kyaw Aung says he lived and worked side-by-side with Rohingya.

But, like most Rakhine, he calls Rohingya Bengalis, a reference to the widespread belief that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

"I used to work a business together with Bengalis for fishing and selling fish. I also opened a tea shop. They were my regular customers," he recalled. "They were always at my tea shop, day and night. We were living together like relatives."

For more than 50 years one of his closest friends has been Rohingya Maung Phyu.

"Our family and their family are very close to each other. We are like real brothers. I ate food at his house. He also visited my home and ate with us," he said.

But since June, after Muslims allegedly raped and murdered a Rakhine girl, revenge attacks and communal violence quickly spread, increasing tensions across the state.

"When the violence started, I told my Bengali friends to leave the village as soon as possible because I didn't want to see them and their family get killed," said Oo Kyaw Aung.

The streets were not safe so Oo Kyaw Aung led Maung Phyu and his family fled to their boat. From offshore, they watched their village burn.

Like tens of thousands of other Rohingya, they now live in a relief camp near Sittwe.

Maung Phyu's son, Kyaw Myo, says they escaped because of Oo Kyaw Aung's warning but are not likely to return.

"Our family never fought with Rakhine families before. We have good relations with them," he said. "But, now I don't think we can live together again."

Kyaw Myo says the root cause of tension is a lack of equal rights and recognition of Rohingya as a people.

His father, Maung Phyu, agrees.

"We would like to get national identifications. My grandmother and grandfather were born here. I was born here too," Maung Phyu explained. "Now, I’m 61 years old. I want to get citizenship."

Although separated by communal violence, the two families stay in touch by phone.

But even lifelong friends do not always agree.

Oo Kyaw Aung says it was Bengalis from other villages who attacked and burned theirs while his Rohingya friends maintain it was Rakhine Buddhists.