YANGON, Myanmar – Security forces in western Myanmar had to open fire on rioters who burned hundreds of homes in sectarian violence that killed at least seven people, state-controlled media reported Saturday, adding that calm had been restored.
The rioting reflected long-standing tensions between Buddhist residents and Muslims, many of whom are considered to be illegal settlers from neighboring Bangladesh. Although the root of the problem is localized — centering on resentment of the alleged cross-border outsiders — there is fear that the trouble could spread elsewhere because the split also runs along religious lines.
Saturday's television report announced that troops reinforced police in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in Rakhine state, where the mobs rampaged. The state-run newspaper Myanma Ahlin said security forces opened fire to restore order. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was applied and public gatherings of more than five people banned.
According to the television report, seven people were killed and 17 wounded in Friday's violence. It said 494 houses, 19 shops and a guest house were burned down.
Myanma Ahlin daily reported that about 1,000 "terrorists" were responsible for the rampage, which also saw some storm Maungdaw General Hospital. State media did not otherwise identify the rioters, but the area is 90 percent Muslim, and local residents contacted by phone said the mob's members were Muslims. The dead were evidently all Buddhists, judging by the names of the victims. It was not clear if any of the casualties were caused by the security forces.
The TV report said, without further elaboration, that Myanmar naval forces are taking security measures along the nearby coast on the Bay of Bengal.
The amount of information about the incident released by state media in a timely fashion is nearly unprecedented. Under the previous military regime, such incidents usually went unreported or were referred to only in brief, cryptic fashion.
The elected though military-backed government of President Thein Sein has instituted reforms to try to reverse decades of repression, including allowing a much freer flow of information.
The trigger for the latest round of violence came with the rape and murder of a young Buddhist girl last month, allegedly by three Muslim youths. Some anti-Muslim pamphlets were circulated about the incident, evidently enflaming local Buddhists. On June 3, 10 Muslims were killed by an angry mob who attacked a bus carrying them from a religious gathering in Rakhine's Taunggup town.
Dozens of Muslims protested peacefully in front of a mosque in downtown Yangon on Tuesday calling for justice for the 10 dead and complaining about terminology used by state-run newspapers they said was derogatory.
This past week the government announced it was establishing a special committee to investigate the bus incident and another unrelated case of violence in Rakhine that occurred the same day. The establishment of such a committee also breaks with past precedent.
Myanma Ahlin reported Saturday that the three rape suspects have been put on trial.
The problems in Rakhine state have long been overshadowed by the conflicts between the government and large ethnic minorities in other border areas who have been seeking greater autonomy. While Thein Sein's government has concluded cease-fires with several ethnic guerrilla groups, it still face a bitter insurgency in the north by the Kachin ethnic minority.