50 dead as Myanmar counts cost of Buddhists and Muslim clashes

AFP , Saturday 16 Jun 2012

50 people have died, with 54 injured between May 28 and June 14 in Myanmar's Rakhine state in communal clashes between local Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya, state media reported

Myanmar soldiers patrol in a street as Muslims take refuge at their camp in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state in western Myanmar (Photo :AP)

Fifty people have been killed in communal clashes in western Myanmar, state media said Saturday, as the UN warned of "immense hardship" faced by thousands displaced by rioting.

State mouthpiece the New Light of Myanmar said 50 people have died, with 54 injured between May 28 and June 14 in Rakhine state, which has been convulsed by violence between local Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya.

The report did not say whether the updated toll includes 10 Muslims beaten to death on June 3 by a Buddhist mob in apparent revenge for the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman, which sparked the violence.

A senior state official on Thursday said 29 people -- 16 Muslims and 13 Buddhists -- had been killed, but rights groups and other local sources believe the real figure in Rakhine's remote villages could be much higher.

Sittwe was calm but tense on Saturday, with New Light saying security forces overnight were "restoring peace, stability and security" after the unrest, which poses a serious challenge to Myanmar's reform-minded government.

Nearly 32,000 people from both sides are being housed in scores of camps across Rakhine, officials in Sittwe said on Thursday, after thousands of homes were set ablaze.

A United Nations team witnessed the devastation on a two-day visit to the region, saying that around 10,000 displaced people were sheltering in Sittwe alone.

"These people are facing immense hardship," it said in a statement late Friday, describing them as both Rakhine and Muslim.

Pledging help for the affected area, UN special adviser Vijay Nambiar praised the government for its "prompt, firm and sensitive" response to the clashes but urged a "full, impartial and credible" probe into the unrest.

The shells of torched houses were all that remained of the mainly Muslim neighbourhood of Narzi, an AFP reporter said Saturday, where charred belongings and corrugated roofing spilled into the road amid a heavy military presence.

Thousands of residents have fled to safety in surrounding areas of Sittwe after violence tore apart their communities.

"It's impossible to live together again," Hein Nu, an ethnic Rakhine housewife living a few homes away from Narzi told AFP.

"We didn't sleep for seven or eight days because of the violence... now we can sleep well because the police are taking care of our security."

Decades of discrimination have left the Muslim Rohingya stateless and viewed by the United Nations as among the most persecuted minorities on the planet.

About 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar, according to the UN, mostly in Rakhine.

The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya to be foreigners, while many citizens see them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and view them with hostility.

The Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya in the region have accused each other of violent attacks, and over the recent days of clashes local residents were seen on the streets wielding knives, swords and sticks.

Myanmar's President Thein Sein has warned the violence could disrupt the nation's fragile democratic reforms as it emerges from decades of army-rule and it appears set to dominate the political agenda.

"This will be the big issue to be discussed in the coming Parliament on July 4," a Myanmar parliamentary official said requesting anonymity.

It also poses a dilemma for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, currently on a historic trip to Europe, who has faced pressure from Rohingya to speak up on their behalf but risks angering Myanmar's Buddhist majority.

Speaking in Geneva on Thursday the Nobel laureate stressed "the need for rule of law" when asked about the sectarian unrest. She is due to deliver her formal 1991 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on Saturday.

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