Survivors of ethnic clashes in western Myanmar lashed out at the government Monday for failing to prevent violence between Muslims and Buddhists that has displaced more than 28,000 people over the last week.
The crisis, which first began in June, has raised international concern and posed one of the biggest challenges yet to Myanmar’s reformist President Thein Sein, who inherited power from a xenophobic military junta last year.
The latest violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims began Oct. 21 and has left at least 84 people dead and 129 injured, according to the government. Human rights groups believe the true toll could be far higher.
“The authorities are not solving the problem and soldiers are not defending us,” said Kyaw Myint, a Muslim man who took refuge at Thechaung camp outside Sittwe. He fled his home in nearby Pauktaw when it was torched Wednesday.
“I feel as though I am in hell,” he said. “We have no one to take care of us, no place to go, and now no job to earn a living.”
A 37-year-old Rakhine trader named Maung Than Naing, reached by phone in the village of Kyauktaw, also expressed anger over the government’s handling of the violence.
“We are helpless because the government is not dealing with the root of the problem,” he said. “We no longer want to live with the Muslims.”
Maung Than Naing, who also lost his home in an arson attack, blamed the Rohingya for breaking the calm.
“These poor Muslim people who live hand to mouth burned their own homes so that they enjoy the U.N. aid where they are given shelter and free food,” he said.
A tense calm has held across the region since Saturday, Rakhine state spokesman Myo Thant said.
Security had been stepped up in the state, with additional police and soldiers deployed, but he declined to give details.
The priority now is to ensure those who lost homes have adequate shelter and food, Myo Thant said.
The long-brewing conflict is rooted in a dispute over the Muslim residents’ origin. Although many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely denigrated as intruders who came from neighboring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.
The Rohingya also face official discrimination, a policy encouraged by Myanmar’s previous military regimes to enlist popular support among other groups. A 1982 law formally excluded them as one of the country’s 135 ethnicities, meaning most are denied basic civil rights and are deprived of citizenship.
Human rights groups say racism also plays a role: Many Rohingya, who speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and are heavily discriminated against.
Bangladesh, though, also denies them citizenship. The U.N. estimates their population in Myanmar at 800,000.
Tensions have simmered in western Myanmar since clashes first broke out in June after a Rakhine woman was allegedly raped and murdered by three Muslim men.
The June violence displaced 75,000 people — also mostly Muslims.
U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar Ashok Nigam said on Monday that the number of displaced was likely to rise because some people who fled affected areas along the coast by boat last week have yet to be counted.
An estimated 27,300 of the 28,000 newly displaced are Muslims, Nigam said, adding that the U.N. figure was based on statistics from local authorities.
The new numbers bring the total number of displaced in Rakhine state since June to at least 103,000.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.