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Sectarian Violence Spreads in Burma

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Renewed sectarian violence between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine is spreading in Burma’s western Rakhine state. At least two people were reported killed and there are concerns the death toll may grow.

Authorities say fighting erupted late Tuesday in two more towns, Kyaukpyu and Myebon.

Burma's state media said communal violence has left more than 1,000 homes burned since Sunday.

The New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported two people were killed in the fighting, while unconfirmed reports say casualty figures are much higher.

Al Haji Nyunt Maung Shein is chairman of Burma's Islamic Religious Affairs Council. He says they received reports as many as 178 Muslims and Buddhists were killed, but were unable to independently confirm the figures.

"Still the violence is going on in Rakhine state, especially in Kyaukpyu area and Myinbya area last night. And recently they are suffering so much. And almost all, nearly 2,000 houses are burnt," he said.

The council cancelled celebration of the Islamic religious festival Eid al-Adha out of concern for security.

It is not clear what started this week's unrest.

Human Rights Watch Burma researcher Matthew Smith says the remoteness of Rakhine state is partly to blame. But he says prejudice also plays a role.

"This is an issue that has not been covered in any sort of adequate way. And, the sympathies that few people have in the country for the plight of the Rohingya are certainly drowned out by opposing viewpoints," said Smith.

The Rohingya Muslims are not recognized as citizens in Burma, despite many living there for generations. Most Buddhists in Burma consider them illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Their legal status leaves them open to exploitation, and the United Nations calls them one of the most abused minorities in the world.

Toronto-based democracy activist and Burma analyst Vijay Sappani says the government needs to offer the Rohingya better protection.

"I think the long-term solution is to find some form of a citizenship status or some form of a status that can be given to them so that there is a law which is clearly defined and that can be implemented," said Sappani. "The challenge right now is that there is a law that is fairly discriminative and the majority do support it."

The government withdrew an offer last week for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to open an office in Rakhine State, following Buddhist-monk-led protests.

Tensions between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims broke out in June over allegations in state media that Rohingya men raped a Rakhine girl. A Rakhine mob attacked and killed a busload of Rohingya and spiraling revenge attacks left close to 90 people dead and tens of thousands homeless.

A government appointed investigation commission is to deliver a report on the violence in November.

Article by Daniel Schearf, VOA News