YANGON, Myanmar – Skirmishes between Muslims and Buddhists in western Myanmar have spread to two new districts where authorities are struggling to douse flames from burning homes, the government said Wednesday.
Rakhine state spokesman Myo Thant said clashes between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists — reported in other parts of the coastal region Sunday — engulfed the townships of Kyaukphyu and Myebon late Tuesday.
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 in late May. 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.
The skirmishes this week began Sunday in Minbyar and Mrauk-U districts, both located north of the regional capital, Sittwe. The government says up to three people were killed and more than 1,000 homes burned down.
Myo Thant said fighting began Tuesday in Kyaukphyu and Myebon and continued Wednesday.
"Houses are burning and clashes between the two communities are ongoing," Myo Thant said. "The most important thing is to put out the fires. We are trying to control the situation."
Kyaukphyu and Myebon are located about 95 kilometers (60 miles) and 50 kilometers (30 miles) south and east of Sittwe, respectively.
There was no immediate word on whether there were any casualties in the two townships, and Myo Thant had no details on the extent of arson attacks there.
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.
Clashes in June in Rakhine 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 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.