x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Rains bring uneasy calm to Myanmar

Residents still say they are too afraid to sleep at night and face food shortages after five days of deadly sectarian strife.

Rohingya Muslims attempt to cross the Naf river into Bangladesh to escape sectarian violence in Myanmar.
Rohingya Muslims attempt to cross the Naf river into Bangladesh to escape sectarian violence in Myanmar.

SITTWE, Myanmar // Heavy rain brought an uneasy calm to western Myanmar yesterday after five days of deadly sectarian strife. Yet residents said they were too afraid to sleep at night and faced food shortages.

At least 21 people have died and more than 1,600 homes have been torched in the conflict pitting ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against stateless Rohingya Muslims in coastal Rakhine state. It is some of the worst sectarian unrest in Myanmar in years. Some of the fires were put out only by the rain.

Fears of renewed violence halted bus and ferry deliveries of food and other cargo from Yangon to Sittwe, Rakhine's capital, limiting supplies and sending prices rocketing. Shops, banks, schools and markets were closed.

President Thein Sein has declared an emergency in Rakhine and warned the spiralling violence could threaten democratic reforms tentatively transforming the country after 50 years of military rule.

The UN special adviser on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, visited Sittwe yesterday with government officials, then flew to another city that has seen violence, Maungdaw in northern Rakhine state near Bangladesh.

Bangladesh shares a 200-kilometre border with Myanmar and is home to an estimated 300,000 Rohingya refugees. They want Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to steal up for them.

Mohammad Islam, leader of the refugees living in Nayapara camp in the Bangladesh border town of Teknaf, said: "Our appeal is to the UN, foreign nations, the Myanmar government and especially to Suu Kyi. She hasn't done or said anything for us, yet the Rohingyas including my parents campaigned for her in the 1990 elections. Like most other Burmese people, she is silent about the rights of Rohingya."

Ferry cargo companies that deliver to the conflict area stopped service on Tuesday and will resume once security is restored, said a manager at the Shwe Pyi Thit ferry service.

Road transport in and out of the cities stopped a few days ago.

"Food is very scarce and prices are high," said Sittwe resident Khin Thazin. She said the main market was closed and a handful of roadside vendors sold out in an hour.

Another resident, San Shwe, said he did not trust the quiet brought by yesterday's rains. She said: "Life has not returned to normal. We live in fear every day and night."

The sectarian tensions in the area are long-standing, but the violence that erupted Friday was triggered by the rape and murder last month of a Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Muslims, and the June 3 lynching of 10 Muslims in apparent retaliation.

Security forces have struggled to quell the violence that has prompted thousands of Muslim villagers to flee. About 1,500 Rohingyas were turned away from entering Bangladesh by boats since the weekend.

Human Rights Watch has urged Bangladesh to open its border to more Rohingyas seeking refuge.

Bangladesh's foreign minister, Dipu Moni, said on Tuesday the impoverished country's resources already are strained.

Myanmar regards Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh says Rohingyas have been living in Myanmar for centuries.

The United Nations' refugee agency estimates 800,000 Rohingyas live in Myanmar's mountainous Rakhine state. Thousands attempt to flee every year to Bangladesh, Malaysia and elsewhere.

Bangladeshi officials have taken in at least one Rohingya: a one-and-a-half-month old baby boy found in an abandoned boat in the River Naf, near Shah Pori Island in Teknaf.

The border guard official Major Saiful Wadud said the other passengers, sensing the presence of the guards, had jumped into the river late on Tuesday as the boat neared the shore, but the baby was left behind. The officials handed the baby over to villager Kabir Ahmed. He said the baby was doing well as he was being breast-fed by his wife, who has four boys of her own.

* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse