Published October 23, 2012
YANGON, Myanmar – New clashes between Muslims and Buddhists have broken out in volatile western Myanmar, leaving at least two people dead and more than a thousand homes burned to the ground, authorities said Tuesday.
The information ministry said the violence was continuing and authorities were trying to restore law and order.
The unrest, which began Sunday night, is some of the worst reported between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists since skirmishes swept the region in June, displacing about 70,000 people.
Rakhine state Attorney General Hla Thein said the latest violence began in Minbyar township, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of the state capital, Sittwe. It later spread farther north to Mrauk-U township. Both areas are remote, reachable only by foot, Hla Thein said.
Authorities imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the townships on Monday, Hla Thein said. He said both areas were calm Tuesday, but the Information ministry announced later in the day that the violence was continuing.
Hla Thein said one Buddhist man and two Muslim women died in Sunday's riots, but the ministry put the death toll at two — a man and a woman. It said 531 houses from six villages in Minbyar and 508 houses in two villages in Mrauk-U had been destroyed in arson attacks.
The unrest comes four months after members of the two religious groups turned on each other across Rakhine state in June after the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men in late May.
That violence left at least 90 people dead and destroyed more than 3,000 homes and dozens of mosques and monasteries. The two groups are now almost completely segregated in towns such as Sittwe, where the Rakhine are able to roam freely while the Rohingya are mostly confined to a series of camps outside the city center.
The last serious clashes in the state took place in August, when government officials said seven people were killed in the town of Kyauktaw. The United Nations said 600 homes were burned at the time.
The crisis in Myanmar's west goes back decades and is rooted in a dispute over where the region's Muslim inhabitants are from. Although many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely denigrated as foreigners — intruders who came from neighboring Bangladesh to steal scarce land.
The U.N. 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: Many Rohingya, who speak a distinct Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, have darker skin and 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 a half century of military rule ended in 2011.