Burma clashes spread to new districts
Muslim Rohingya children at a camp for displaced people near Sittwe. Photograph: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Burma clashes spread to new districts

24 October 2012

Skirmishes between Muslims and Buddhists in western Burma have spread to two new districts where authorities are struggling to douse flames from burning homes, the government has said.

Arakan state spokesman Myo Thant said clashes between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Arakan Buddhists engulfed the townships of Kyaukphyu and Myebon late on Tuesday. Trouble had been reported in other parts of the coastal region on Sunday.

The unrest is some of the worst reported in the region since violence swept the area in June after the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men. Although clashes have been rare since then, tensions have simmered in part because the government has failed to find any long-term solution to the crisis other than segregating the two communities in some areas.

This week's skirmishes began on Sunday in Minbyar and Mrauk-U districts, north of the state capital, Sittwe. The government says up to three people were killed and more than 1,000 homes were burned down.

"Houses are burning and clashes between the two communities [in Kyaukphyu and Myebon] are ongoing," Myo Thant said. "The most important thing is to put out the fires. We are trying to control the situation." There was no immediate word on casualties in the two townships.

Kyaukphyu and Myebon are located about 60 miles (95km) and 30 miles (50km) south and east of Sittwe, respectively.

The crisis goes back decades and is rooted in a dispute over where western Burma's Muslim inhabitants are from. Although many Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations, they are widely denigrated as foreigners – intruders who came from neighbouring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.

The UN estimates their number at 800,000. But the government does not count them as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups, and so – like Bangladesh – denies them citizenship. Human rights groups say racism also plays a role, claiming that many Rohingya, who speak a distinct Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, are heavily discriminated against.

The conflict has proven to be a major challenge for the government of President Thein Sein, which has embarked on democratic reforms since half a half of military rule ended in 2011.

Clashes in June in Arakan state left more than 90 people dead and 3,000 homes destroyed. Today, there are about 70,000 displaced from the conflict, mostly Muslims. The two communities are almost completely segregated in towns such as Sittwe, where the Arakan Buddhists are able to roam freely while the Rohingya are mostly confined to a series of camps outside the centre.