Violent unrest in western Myanmar has displaced 22,000: UN official
Refugees in Baw Du Pha refugee camp in Sittwe, Rakhine State, western Myanmar, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012. (AP / Khin Maung Win)
The Associated Press
Published Sunday, October 28, 2012 8:18AM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, October 28, 2012 4:31PM EDT
SITTWE, Myanmar -- Victims of Myanmar's latest explosion of Muslim-Buddhist violence fled to already packed displacement camps along the country's western coast as a top UN official said Sunday the unrest has forced more than 22,000 people from their homes.
Wooden boats carrying some of those on the move arrived outside the state capital, Sittwe. They trudged to the nearby Thechaung camp, a place already home to thousands of Rohingya Muslims who took refuge there after a previous wave of violence in June.
"I fled my hometown Pauktaw on Friday because there is no security at all," said 42-year-old fisherman Maung Myint, who arrived on a boat carrying 40 other people, including his wife and six children. "My house was burned to ashes and I have no money left."
Another Muslim refugee said she fled her village, Kyaukphyu, on Thursday after attackers set her home on fire.
"We don't feel safe," said 40-year old Zainabi, a fish-seller who left with her two sons, aged 12 and 14. "I wish the violence would stop so we can live peacefully."
Human Rights Watch released dramatic satellite imagery of Kyaukphyu on Saturday showing a vast, predominantly Rohingya swath of the village in ashes. The destruction included more than 800 buildings and floating barges.
Myanmar's government has put the death toll at 67 over the last week, saying 95 more people were injured from Sunday through Thursday in seven townships in Rakhine state.
The casualty figures have not been broken down by ethnic group, but Human Rights Watch said the Rohingya had suffered the brunt of the violence. The New York-based rights group also said the true death toll may be far higher, based on witness accounts and the government's history of minimizing news that might reflect badly on it.
Border Affairs Minister Lt. General Thein Htay traveled to the affected areas with the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, Ashok Nigam.
Nigam said 22,587 were displaced and they included both Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, but he gave no breakdown.
Some 4,600 homes were also destroyed, according to the UN, which said in a separate statement that it had begun distributing emergency food and shelter supplies with its humanitarian partners to refugees in urgent need of help.
The latest unrest pushes the total displaced to nearly 100,000 since clashes broke out in June.
Speaking to The Associated Press while visiting Thechaung camp, Nigam said getting aid to the new wave of displaced will be a challenge as some fled on boat and others have sought refuge on isolated hilltops.
"The situation is certainly very grave and we are working with the government to provide urgent aid to these people," he said.
Ill will between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state goes back decades and has its roots in a dispute over the Muslim Rohingya's origins. Although many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are seen as foreign intruders who came from Bangladesh to steal scarce land.
Today, the Rohingya also face official discrimination, a policy encouraged by Myanmar's previous military regimes to enlist popular support among other groups. A 1984 law formally excluded them as one of the country's 135 ethnicities, meaning most are denied basic civil rights and deprived of citizenship.
Neighbouring Bangladesh, which also does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens, says thousands of Rohingya refugees have also sought to flee there by boat. Its policy, however, is to refuse them entry.
Rights groups say Myanmar's failure to address the root causes of the crisis means the situation may only get worse.
In June, ethnic violence in Rakhine killed at least 90 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes. About 75,000 people, mostly Rohingya, have been living in refugee camps since then. Curfews have been in place in some areas since the earlier violence and were extended this past week.
"It is critically important that the government ensures that the rule of law prevails, prevents any further spreading of this violence and continues to communicate strong messages of harmony," Nigam said in a statement later Sunday.
"The violence, fear and mistrust is contrary to the democratic transition and economic and social development that Myanmar is committed to," Nigam said. "It should not become an impediment to progress."