Muslim, Buddhist mob violence threatens new Myanmar image
SITTWE, Myanmar, (Reuters) – Northwest Myanmar was tense yesterday after sectarian violence engulfed its largest city at the weekend, with Reuters witnessing rival mobs of Muslims and Buddhists torching houses and police firing into the air to disperse crowds.
At least seven people have been killed and many hurt, authorities say, in the worst communal violence since a reformist government replaced a military junta last year and vowed to forge unity in one of Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries.
The fighting erupted on Friday in the Rakhine State town of Maungdaw, but has spread to the capital Sittwe and nearby villages, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency late on Sunday and impose a dawn-to-dusk curfew.
“We have now ordered troops to protect the airport and the Rakhine villages under attack in Sittwe,” Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office, told Reuters. “Arrangements are under way to impose a curfew in some other towns.”
The unrest undermines the image of ethnic unity and stability that helped persuade the United States and Europe to suspend economic sanctions this year, while increasing curfews could threaten tourism and foreign investment – rewards for emerging from nearly half a century of army rule.
It might also force reformist President Thein Sein, a former general, to confront an issue that human rights groups have criticised for years: the plight of thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims who live along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh in abject conditions and are despised by many ethnic Rakhine, members of Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist majority. The violence could jeopardise the country’s transition to democracy if it spreads further, Thein Sein said in a hastily arranged televised address on Sunday.
Rohingya activists have long demanded recognition as an indigenous ethnic group with full citizenship by birthright, claiming a centuries-old lineage in Rakhine. But the government regards them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and denies them citizenship.
In recent days, they have been described as “invaders” or “terrorists” by some Burmese using their newfound freedom of expression and easier access to the Internet to vent their anger on social networking sites and express anti-Rohingya sentiments that have simmered for decades.