Thousand Homes Torched in Fresh Arakan Strife

By The Associated Press 24 October 2012

RANGOON—Fresh clashes between Muslims and Buddhists have broken out in volatile western Burma, leaving at least two people dead and more than a thousand homes burned to the ground, authorities said on Tuesday.

The Information Ministry admitted the violence was continuing and local authorities were trying to restore law and order.

The unrest, which began on Sunday night, is some of the worst reported between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Arakanese Buddhists since skirmishes swept the region in June, displacing around 70,000 people.

Arakan State Attorney General Hla Thein said the latest violence began in Minbyar Township, around 15 miles north of the state capital Sittwe. It later spread farther north to Mrauk-U Township. Both areas are remote, reachable only by foot, Hla Thein said.

Authorities imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the townships on Monday, Hla Thein said. Although he declared both areas calm on Tuesday, the Information Ministry announced later in the day that the violence was continuing.

Hla Thein said one Buddhist man and two Muslim women died in Sunday’s riots, but the ministry put the death toll at two—a man and a woman. It said 531 houses from six villages in Minbyar and 508 houses in two villages in Mrauk-U had been destroyed in arson attacks.

The unrest comes four months after members of the two religious groups turned on each other across Arakan State in June after the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men in late May.

That violence left at least 90 people dead and destroyed more than 3,000 homes and dozens of mosques and monasteries. The two groups are now almost completely segregated in towns such as Sittwe, where the Arakanese are able to roam freely while the Rohingya are mostly confined to a series of camps outside the city center.

The last serious clashes in the state took place in August, when government officials said seven people were killed in the town of Kyauktaw. The United Nations said 600 homes were burned at the time.

The crisis in Burma’s west goes back decades and is rooted in a dispute over where the region’s Muslim inhabitants are from. Although many Rohingya have lived in the country for generations, they are widely denigrated as foreigners—illegal intruders who came from neighboring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.

The UN estimates their number at 800,000. But the government does not count them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, and so—like Bangladesh—denies them citizenship. Human rights groups say racism also plays a role: Many Rohingya, who speak a distinct Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and are heavily discriminated against.

The conflict has proven to be a major challenge for the government of President Thein Sein, which has embarked on democratic reforms since a half-century of military rule ended in 2011.