Food shortages add to misery in western Myanmar’s sectarian strife

Food shortages add to misery in western Myanmar’s sectarian strife

Burmese Muslim women and children from villages gather before being relocated to secure areas in Sittwe. (Photo: AP)

June 13, 2012, Wednesday/ 13:02:00/ AP

Heavy rain on Wednesday brought an uneasy calm to western Myanmar after five days of deadly sectarian strife, though residents said they were still too afraid to sleep at night and faced a new problem of food shortages.

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

Fear of renewed violence prompted bus and ferry services from Yangon to halt deliveries of food and other cargo to Sittwe, Rakhine's capital, limiting supplies and sending prices skyrocketing. Shops, banks, schools and markets were closed.

President Thein Sein has declared an emergency in Rakhine and warned that the spiraling violence could threaten the democratic reforms tentatively transforming the country after half a century of military rule.

The UN special adviser on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, visited Sittwe on Wednesday, accompanied by government officials, and then flew to Maungdaw in northern Rakhine state near Bangladesh. Both cities have seen violence in recent days.

Security forces have struggled to contain the strife that started last Friday and has prompted thousands of Muslim villagers to flee. About 1,500 Rohingyas attempted to enter Bangladesh by boats but were been turned away.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement on Wednesday urging Bangladesh to open its border to Rohingyas seeking refuge.

“By closing its border when violence ... is out of control, Bangladesh is putting lives at grave risk,” Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“Bangladesh has an obligation under international law to keep its border open to people fleeing threats to their lives and provide them protection,” Frelick said.

Myanmar considers Rohingyas to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh says Rohingyas have been living in Myanmar for centuries and should be recognized there as citizens.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said Tuesday at a news conference in the capital, Dhaka, that it was not in Bangladesh's interest to accept any refugees because the impoverished country's resources already are strained.

Some Rohingyas are recent settlers, but many have lived in Myanmar for generations and rights groups say they suffer severe discrimination.

The unrest in Myanmar 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.

On Friday, a mob of 1,000 Muslims -- described as “terrorists” in the state media -- went on a rampage in Maungdaw township before security forces restrained them. The violence then spread, including to Sittwe.

Ferry cargo companies that deliver to the area stopped service on Tuesday and will resume once security is restored, said a manager at the Shwe Pyi Thit ferry service. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to sensitivities surrounding the sectarian violence.

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 were out briefly in the morning but didn't have stocks to meet the demand. “Everything sold out in an hour.”

Another resident, San Shwe, contacted by telephone, said he did not trust the quiet brought by the rains on Wednesday.

“It is quiet here this morning but life has not returned to normal. We live in fear every day and night,” said San Shwe, recounting unconfirmed rumors that local authorities had seized weapons caches from Muslim villagers.

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 from an abandoned boat in the River Naf, near Shah Pori Island in Teknaf.

Border guard official Maj. Saiful Wadud said the passengers jumped into the river late Tuesday as the boat neared the shore, sensing the presence of border guards and coast guards, but the baby was left on the boat.

The officials then recovered the baby and handed him over to villager Kabir Ahmed. The fisherman said the baby was doing well as he was being breast-fed by his wife, who has four boys of her own.

It wasn't clear Wednesday what ultimately would become of the child.

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