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Violence Escalates in Burma’s Rakhine State

People look on a house engulfed in flames in Sittwe, Burma, June 11, 2012.
BANGKOK - Northwest Burma’s Rakhine state remains tense after President Thein Sein dispatched troops to try to end religious and ethnic violence. The riots began after 10 ethnic-Rohingya Muslims were mobbed and murdered by ethnic Rakhines, in retaliation for the gang-rape of a Rakhine girl.

Local witnesses in villages in Burma’s western Rakhine state said fires continued to burn Monday, even after President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency and sent in troops to bring the riots under control.

The clashes that began on June 8 are the most severe in a string of violent attacks between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, the state’s largest minority group, and ethnic Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship in both Burma and Bangladesh.

“In the morning after leaving the army from the Maungdaw today morning, the police and the riot police they and the Rakhine people are trying to burn to loot and to kill the Rohingya people," said Tin Soe is the editor of Kaladan Press Network, a Rohingya news agency, which has been reporting on the riots. "Ethnic problem or religious problem, we don’t know which one we can say.”

Both minority groups in the region claim to be under attack, but the Rohingya have a history of being a target of racism. Although many Rohingya communities have lived in Burma for decades, the government refuses to grant them citizenship - a position that has broad support among other Burmese nationals.

Even democracy leader and former political prisoner Ko Ko Gyi recently said he believed "so-called Rohingya" not to be one of the recognized Burmese ethnic groups.

Nicholas Farelly, Burma analyst of Australia National University, says the Rohingya’s statelessness between Burma and Bangladesh is partially to blame for the conflict's escalation.

“The Rohingya, they fit somewhat awkwardly in that borderland between the two different political systems, they have nowhere to call home and, as a result from time to time, there are these episodes of conflict," said Farelly. "We have seen one of those very recently and it has in this case taken the form of Buddhist and Muslim mobs of varying sizes coming to blows.”

On Sunday, Thein Sein’s national address referenced what he called Burma’s “checkered” history of peaceful co-existence of among the country’s diverse ethnic groups. He condemned racial and religiously-based violence, which he said could jeopardize the country’s democratic reforms.

In Bangkok Monday, Maung Kyaw Nu of the Burmese Rohingya Association of Thailand asked the United Nations to intervene.

"Today, I am coming here to express, to hand over the letter to Mr. Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations," said Maung Kyaw Nu. "I would like his intervention, U.N. intervention to save my people who are killed. Genocide is there. I'm coming here to ask his help, intervention as well as the global civil society's help."

The U.S. embassy issued a statement urging all parties to stop violent attacks and the government to hold a transparent investigation.