More Houses Torched, but Sittwe 'Stable'

By Nyein Nyein 15 June 2012

Around 60 houses were destroyed in a blaze set by unknown assailants in the Arakan State capital of Sittwe after midnight on Friday, despite government assurances the day before that the situation there had been brought under control.

The fire broke out in Pardalatechae, a coastal neighborhood in the port city’s Myothagyi district, at around 1 am, according to sources in the area.

“They came by boat and first burned some houses owned by Bengalis, but this quickly spread to nearby Arakanese homes,” said a local resident.

Despite the size of the fire, no casualties were reported as most residents had already taken shelter in relief camps amid nearly two weeks of clashes between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingyas, a Muslim minority group often referred to as Bengalis by local people.

Khine Pyi Soe, a spokesman for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, said that the attack occurred after residents on fire-watch patrols were arrested by security forces because of a curfew imposed by the government last week.

Fires have been a major feature of the violence that has swept through the state since early last week, when a mob lynched 10 Muslims on June 3, apparently in retaliation for the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman on May 28.

According to official figures released to reporters on Thursday, a total of 2,528 houses have been burnt down since the clashes began. Of these, 1,192 belonged to Arakanese and 1,336 belonged to Rohingyas.

Government media also reported today that 35 people had been arrested on June 13 while trying to start fires. Twenty-nine of those taken into custody were in possession of knives and Molotov cocktails, the reports said.

At a Thursday press conference, Border Affairs Minister Col Htein Lin said that a total of 29 people had died in the fighting—13 Arakanese and 16 Rohingyas. At the same press conference, he also declared that “the situation has been under controlled since June 13.”

Despite last night’s arson attacks in Sittwe, sources in the city say that the situation there today appears to be stable.

According to Khin Maung Win, a photojournalist who is one of around 30 reporters covering the conflict in the area, downtown Sittwe is calm as police and soldiers patrol the city.

The heavy security presence has, however, been an obstacle for journalists trying to ascertain who is behind some of the attacks, said Khin Maung Win, explaining that they have been given limited access to areas not under the control of the security forces.

“We can’t see who is starting the fires, but whenever we arrive on the scene, it is Arakanese people who are trying to put them out,” said Khin Maung Win.

Because journalists are unable to venture outside of Arakanese areas, it is difficult to assess the situation in predominantly Rohingya neighborhoods, he added. “But where we are, we can see a lot of people preparing to defend themselves with bamboo sticks against sudden attacks.”

Sittwe has been especially tense during the recent standoff because although it is populated mainly by Arakanese, most of the surrounding villages are inhabited by Rohingyas, who also make up the bulk of the population in the townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung, north of the capital near the Bangladesh border.

Local authorities declared a curfew in these two townships last Friday after a series of reprisal attacks following the lynching incident of June 3. The government later declared a state of emergency as the unrest spread to the other cities, including Sittwe.

Since then, 37 relief camps, including two camps for Muslims in Thaechaung village, have been set up to shelter more than 30,000 people displaced by the fighting.

In Rangoon, meanwhile, security has also been stepped up amid rumors that local Muslims were planning to protest following Friday prayers. However, mosques in the city were reportedly closed, and residents said the the situation appears normal.