SITTWE, Arakan State—Victims of Burma’s latest explosion of Muslim-Buddhist violence fled to already packed displacement camps along the country’s western coast, with a top UN official saying the unrest has forced more than 22,000 people from their homes.
State television reported the casualty toll has risen to 84 dead and 129 injured over the past week in nine townships in Arakan (Rakhine) State. The figures have not been broken down by ethnic group, but New York-based Human Rights Watch has said Rohingya Muslims bore the brunt of the unrest and the true death toll may be far higher.
On Sunday, wooden boats carrying some refugees arrived outside the state capital Sittwe. The people trudged to the Thechaung camp, already home to thousands of Rohingya who took refuge there after a previous wave of violence in June.
“I fled my hometown, Pauktaw, on Friday because there is no security at all,” said 42-year-old fisherman Maung Myint, who arrived on a boat carrying 40 other people, including his wife and six children. “My house was burned to ashes and I have no money left.”
Another Muslim refugee said she fled her village, Kyaukphyu, on Thursday after attackers set her home on fire.
“We don’t feel safe,” said 40-year-old Zainabi, a fish seller who left with her two sons, aged 12 and 14. “I wish the violence would stop so we can live peacefully.”
Human Rights Watch released dramatic satellite imagery of Kyaukphyu on Saturday showing a vast, predominantly Rohingya swath of the village in ashes. The destruction included more than 800 buildings and floating barges.
There were no reports of new violence on Sunday. It was unclear what sparked the latest clashes, but ill will between Muslims and Buddhists in Arakan State goes back decades and has its roots in a dispute over the Rohingya’s origins. Although many Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations, they are seen as foreign intruders who came from Bangladesh to steal scarce land.
Today, the Rohingya also face official discrimination, a policy encouraged by Burma’s previous military regimes to enlist popular support among other groups. A 1984 law formally excluded them as one of the country’s 135 ethnicities, meaning most are denied basic civil rights and are deprived of citizenship.
Neighboring Bangladesh, which also does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens, says thousands of Rohingya refugees have sought to flee there by boat. Its policy, however, is to refuse them entry.
Rights groups say Burma’s failure to address the root causes of the crisis means the situation may worsen.
Over the weekend, Border Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Thein Htay traveled to the affected areas with the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Burma Ashok Nigam.
Nigam said 22,587 were displaced and they included both Muslims and ethnic Arakanese Buddhists, but he gave no breakdown.
Speaking to The Associated Press on Sunday while visiting Thechaung camp, Nigam said getting aid to the new wave of displaced people will be a challenge as some fled on boats and others have sought refuge on isolated hilltops.
“The situation is certainly very grave and we are working with the government to provide urgent aid to these people,” he said.
Some 4,600 homes were also destroyed, according to the UN which said it had begun distributing emergency food and shelter supplies to refugees.
The latest unrest pushes the total displaced to nearly 100,000 since the clashes in June, when at least 90 people died and 3,000 homes were destroyed. Around 75,000 people, mostly Rohingya, have lived in refugee camps since then.
“It is critically important that the government ensures that the rule of law prevails, prevents any further spreading of this violence and continues to communicate strong messages of harmony,” Nigam said in a statement later Sunday.
“The violence, fear and mistrust are contrary to the democratic transition and economic and social development that Myanmar is committed to,” Nigam said. “It should not become an impediment to progress.”