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As Burma Violence Continues, Warnings of Broader Instability

October 30, 2012

by Daniel Schearf

Authorities in Burma say they are working to restore calm to western Rakhine state after a week of sectarian violence left nearly 100 people dead, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced 30,000 people, the vast majority of them Muslim. Amid reports of continuing clashes, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has expressed concern the instability could spread.

Burma officials on Tuesday said thousands of security officers are trying to restore order in western Rakhine state, following clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

A spokesman for Rakhine state, Win Myaing, told VOA's Burmese Service the situation was under control. But activists and aid groups Tuesday received reports of renewed fighting from remote areas. Details could not immediately be confirmed.

Rights groups say authorities should have done a better job to prevent the latest violence following the clashes in June that led to increased security and a state of emergency.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says the government response was slow and inadequate.

“It's very very worrisome that the government cannot get this situation under control," he said. "And, part of it I think is that they don't yet have the political commitment to address the root causes of these problems which is the discriminatory policy against the Rohingya that keeps them in such a helpless situation but also the growing movement towards de facto segregation with Rohingya increasingly confined to Internally Displaced Persons camps.”

The United Nations quotes government figures showing the Rohingya suffered the brunt from the week of fighting.

While hundreds of Buddhists were displaced, and dozens of their homes destroyed, more than 27,000 Muslims were pushed out and some 4,000 lost their homes. Entire Muslim villages were burned to the ground. It is still not clear what started the latest round of fighting.

Many Rohingya fled the coast of Rakhine state by boat and made their way to crowded camps in the capital Sittwe.

Maeve Murphy, head of the U.N. refugee agency's office in Sittwe, says there were already 75,000 internally displaced people in the camps from earlier clashes in June. She says aid agencies do not have enough supplies on the ground and are stretched to capacity trying to help those who fled the violence.

"Obviously, they're very terrified. It is very difficult, considering the number of incidents that are taking place," she said. "We are gathering all of the information that we can and we are actively, as UNHCR and all of the humanitarian actors, trying to put together a humanitarian response as soon as possible."

Murphy says they are working as fast as possible to get more supplies and with the government to distribute food and temporary shelters.

Some Rohingya, who speak a dialect of Bengali, tried to flee to Bangladesh. But the border remains closed, despite appeals from the UNHCR to authorities in Dhaka.

Robertson says the Organization of Islamic Cooperation should pressure Bangladesh on the issue.

“The actions by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government towards the Rohingya are nothing short of shameful," said Robertson. "The OIC should be calling out its member Bangladesh for failing to provide basic protections for these fleeing Muslim Rohingya. You know, Bangladesh is essentially defying the international community and getting away with it.”

The secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Tuesday expressed concern the instability, if not checked, could spread beyond Burma. At a speech in Kuala Lumpur, Surin Pitsuwan said ASEAN and the international community should encourage political reconciliation in Burma.

The Rohingya in Burma number around 800,000 but are not recognized as citizens and have few legal rights. Most people in Burma consider them illegal migrants and refer to them as Bengalis. The U.N. considers them one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

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