Ethnic violence Escalates in Burma's Arakan State

Violence against ethnic Rohingya villagers in Burma’s Arakan province is increasingly out of control, according to the National Democratic Party for Human Rights, a Rohingya defender organization which has sent numerous pleas for outside help over the past week.

On Wednesday, a spokesman said the fishing village of Kyaukpyu Town had been attacked by thousands of Buddhist-majority ethnic Rakhine, also known as Arakanese, armed with guns, knives and machetes, alleging the attackers had the backing of the Burmese government.

As many as 50,000 Muslim villagers are now without shelter, the spokesman said, although the region is largely cut off from outside communication, and the figures and the violence cannot be verified independently. Later reports said the mobs had moved to other villages, burning and looting. Rohongyas apparently fought back in the Taungbwe village of Kyauktaw town, killing 15 ethnic Rakhine. Two Rohingya said, the spokesman said.

The organization pleaded for United Nations help to stop the violence, saying marauding gangs attacked villages this week, burning Rohingya houses and killing at least two people. Villagers have gone into hiding from the violence. Native Rakhine have blamed the Rohingyas, with some alleging the violence is being fomented from Islamic militants in Bangladesh. That also cannot be verified.

In Washington, DC, the US government reacted by urging all parties including the Burmese government to take immediate steps to halt the violence. At the same time, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon in New York described the latest outbreak of communal violence in Northern Arakan as deeply troubling.

“The widening mistrust between the communities is being exploited by militant and criminal elements to cause large-scale loss of human lives, material destruction, displaced families as well as fear, humiliation and hatred affecting the people from all walks of life,” a spokesman for Ban said.

“The United States is deeply concerned about reports this week of increasing ethnic and sectarian violence in Burma’s Rakhine [Arakan] State, and urges parties to exercise restraint and immediately halt all attacks,” the US State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, told reporters at her daily news conference. “We join the international community and call on authorities within the country, including the government, civil and religious leaders, to take immediate action to halt the ongoing violence, to grant full humanitarian access to the affected areas, and to begin a dialogue towards a peaceful resolution, ensuring expeditious and transparent investigations into these and previous incidents,” she said.

The predominantly Muslim Rohingya have lived for decades in the Rakhine corner on the western coast of Burma, a long, relatively narrow region on the Andaman Sea that is blocked off from the rest of the country by the 3,000-meter Arakan Mountains. Population pressures have moved them east from Bangladesh, with tensions rising. However, the campaign against them began to intensify in November 2011 with escalating violence that impelled many of them to attempt to escape, taking boats down the long coast to Thailand where the Thais attempted to push many of them back into the sea.

As Asia Sentinel reported in July, Burmans have temporarily faded into a common “Buddhist Burmese” identity vis-à-vis the Rohingya, with senior opposition leaders from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party including Tin Oo, Nyan Win and Win Tin speaking out against the Rohingya. Well-known celebrities, scholars and well-respected writers agreed. Even Aung San Suu Kyi has remained largely silent on the issue.

Responding to questions, Nuland said the violence has been on the agenda in all of the conversations that the US has had with the Burmese, including last week’s Human Rights dialogue. US officials have made five visits down to northern Arakan State since the outbreak of the violence in June, she noted.

“That, in and of itself, is remarkable if you consider where Burma was a year ago, that they are allowing not only us, but they are allowing other international observers and UN organizations to try to assist them in getting a handle on this. It’s obviously a very difficult problem, and we are working with them on various ways to address it,” she said.

The US in October announced an additional contribution of US$2.73 million for displaced people in Rakhine, of which US$2 million was to be routed through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees with another US$730,000 to go through UNICEF for water, sanitation, hygiene, and nutritional support.

Nuland said the root of the problem can be traced to the extreme poverty and lack of opportunity that plagues both communities in Rakhine state. She refrained from responding to questions about whether the events play a role in the further lifting of sanctions on Burma. “I’m not going to get ahead of where we are, which is to try to work with Burmese authorities on ways to address both the short-term issues and the longer-term issues. As we have said, there are communal issues on both sides; there are issues of poverty on both sides. So these have to be worked out over time. But I’m not going to make any predictions about where this is going to go,” Nuland said.