SITTWE, Myanmar – Heavy rain brought an uneasy calm in western Myanmar on Wednesday after five days of sectarian strife, though residents were too fearful to sleep and faced food shortages.
The conflict pitting ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against stateless Rohingya Muslims in coastal Rakhine state has caused at least 21 deaths and more than 1,600 homes have been torched in some of the worst sectarian unrest recorded in Myanmar in years.
An Associated Press journalist in the state capital, Sittwe, confirmed it was calm, with no signs of the scattered fires seen in recent days. Some of the fires had been extinguished only by the rain.
State television news Wednesday night reported no new violence but focused on how the military was restoring order and providing relief.
In Sittwe, soldiers and police patrolled and warned people by loudspeaker to abide the existing state of emergency, which gives the military full authority over administrative and security functions in Rakhine. Other measures include a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and a ban on public meetings of more than five persons.
Fears of renewed violence halted bus and ferry deliveries of food and other cargo from Yangon to Sittwe, limiting supplies and sending prices skyrocketing. Shops, banks, schools and markets were closed.
President Thein Sein has warned that the spiraling violence could threaten the democratic reforms tentatively transforming the country after half a century of military rule.
The U.N. special adviser on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, visited Sittwe on Wednesday, accompanied by government officials, and then flew to another city that has seen violence, Maungdaw, in northern Rakhine state near Bangladesh.
Ferry cargo companies that deliver to the area will resume once security is restored, said a manager at the Shwe Pyi Thit ferry service. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to sensitivities surrounding the sectarian violence.
Road transport in and out of the cities stopped a few days ago.
"Food is very scarce and prices are high," said Sittwe resident Khin Thazin. She said the main market was closed and a handful of roadside vendors were out briefly in the morning but didn't have stocks to meet the demand. "Everything sold out in an hour."
Another resident, San Shwe, contacted by telephone, said he did not trust the quiet brought by Wednesday's rains.
"It is quiet here this morning but life has not returned to normal. We live in fear every day and night," said San Shwe, recounting unconfirmed rumors that authorities had seized weapons caches from Muslim villagers.
Sectarian tensions in the area are long-standing, but the violence that erupted Friday was triggered by the rape and murder last month of a Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Muslims, and the June 3 lynching of 10 Muslims in apparent retaliation.
While the violence may have been contained to Rakhine, nervousness has spread to other areas of Myanmar. Roadside sellers of betel nut leaves, a calling associated with Muslims, complain that business has been bad since the violence started, as do other vendors of the same faith. In Yangon, the nation's largest city, most Muslims avoid venturing out after 9 p.m.
The violence has prompted thousands of Muslim villagers to flee. About 1,500 Rohingyas were turned away from entering Bangladesh by boats since the weekend.
The United States voiced concern Wednesday that "Bangladeshi authorities appear to have intercepted and turned back persons fleeing the ethnic and religious violence in Burma."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is urging Bangladesh to respect its international obligations under refugee conventions. Nuland also urged those involved in the violence in Rakhine State "to put down their arms and start talking to each other."
Human Rights Watch urged Bangladesh to open its border to Rohingyas seeking refuge, saying it was putting lives at grave risk. Bangladesh earlier defended its actions, saying the impoverished country's resources already are strained.
Myanmar considers Rohingyas to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh says Rohingyas have been living in Myanmar for centuries and should be recognized there as citizens.
The United Nations' refugee agency estimates 800,000 Rohingyas live in Rakhine state. Human rights groups say the face severe discrimination and abuse, and thousands attempt to flee every year.
Bangladeshi officials have taken in at least one Rohingya: a one-and-a-half-month-old boy found in an abandoned boat in the River Naf, near Shah Pori Island in Teknaf.
Border guard official Maj. Saiful Wadud said the other passengers, sensing the presence of border guards and coast guards, had jumped into the river late Tuesday as the boat neared the shore, but the baby was left behind. The infant was handed over to a village family.
Associated Press writer Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.