SITTWE, Myanmar: Thousands of displaced people have surged toward already overcrowded camps in western Myanmar after vicious new communal violence that has left dozens dead, officials said Saturday.
Seething resentment between Buddhists and Muslims erupted this week in new unrest in Rakhine state that has seen whole neighborhoods razed and caused a fresh exodus of people fleeing for safety from Rohingya minority areas.
The latest fighting, which has prompted international warnings that the nation’s reforms could be under threat, has killed at least 67 people. It was unclear how many from each community had died, but a state official has said roughly half the dead were women.
Tens of thousands of mainly Muslim Rohingya are already crammed into squalid camps around the state capital Sittwe after deadly violence in June and Rakhine state officials said the latest bloodshed had caused an influx of boats carrying around 6,000 people to the city.
“The local government is planning to relocate them to a suitable place. We are having problems because more people are coming,” said Rakhine government spokesman Hla Thein. Some of the displaced are still on boats while several thousand have docked on an island opposite Sittwe.
The United Nations earlier said 3,200 had made their way toward shelters in Sittwe, with a further several thousand on the way.
Residents of one camp in a coastal area on the outskirts of Sittwe said they could see boatloads of Rohingya on the shore.
“The security forces are not allowing them to come in. Some people are on the shore and some are still on their boats,” Kyaw Kyaw told AFP by telephone.
He added the group of several thousand people, including women and children, was believed to be from just two towns.
State media reported that almost 3,000 homes and 18 religious buildings had been torched in seven townships during the latest fighting, which erupted on October 21, spreading to areas that had been largely untouched by the earlier conflict.
More than 150 people have been killed in the state since June, according to the authorities, who have imposed emergency rule in an attempt to control the violence.
But rights groups fear the real toll could far exceed official figures and have warned that entrenched hostilities in the region are continuing to stoke unrest.
Human Rights Watch on Saturday urged the government to protect the Rohingya, who it said were under “vicious attack,” and to ensure protection and aid were given to both Muslim and Buddhist communities in the region.
“Unless the authorities also start addressing the root causes of the violence, it is only likely to get worse,” said HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.
The group said it had obtained satellite images showing “extensive destruction of homes and other property in a predominantly Rohingya Muslim area” of Kyaukpyu — where a major pipeline to transport Myanmar gas to China begins — with hundreds of buildings torched.
Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, which campaigns for Rohingya rights, said the recent spate of clashes were “far deadlier” than the June unrest.
“Rakhine State has now spiralled into complete lawlessness,” she told AFP on Saturday.
“Violence is spreading to the south and east with the clear purpose of expelling all Muslims, not just Rohingya.”
Rakhine government spokesman Win Myaing told AFP that the situation was now “calm” after security forces were deployed.
He had earlier said many of the casualties suffered stab wounds in the fighting, and that the army had been forced to fire into crowds when warning shots failed to disperse them.
In Sittwe’s general hospital, most of the 27 Rakhine patients were being treated for gunshot wounds, and injured men told AFP the army had fired at Rakhines to stop them from reaching Rohingya communities.
Myanmar’s 800,000 Rohingya are seen as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh by the government and many Burmese — who call them “Bengalis” — and face discrimination that activists say has led to a deepening alienation from Buddhists.
The United Nations on Friday warned that the hostilities could jeopardize the country’s widely-praised reforms, which include the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament.
The stateless Rohingya, speaking a Bengali dialect similar to one in neighboring Bangladesh, have long been considered by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities on the planet.
Bangladesh on Thursday mobilized extra patrols along its river border with Myanmar amid reports of dozens of boats carrying Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing the clashes.