Myanmar Aims to Quell Buddhist-Muslim Riots Near Bangladesh

Myanmar declared a state of emergency in a western region bordering Bangladesh to prevent clashes between Muslims and Buddhists from spreading or threatening the country’s democratic transition.

President Thein Sein said in a televised address last night that uncontrolled violence may hamper the goverment’s ability to proceed with democratic reforms that prompted the U.S. and European Union to suspend sanctions. Bangladesh border guards are on alert to prevent Rohingya Muslims from entering the country, Major Shafiqur Rahman said.

“The situation could deteriorate and could be extended beyond Rakhine State if we are terrorizing and killing each other with such sectarianism, endless hatred, the desire of vengeance and anarchy,” Thein Sein said, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar. Democratization “could be a success only on the ground of peace and stability and the rule of law,” he said.

Thein Sein has struggled to maintain peace in border areas filled with ethnic minorities as he moves to allow more political freedom after about five decades of military rule. Investors are watching for signs the shift to democracy is sustainable while scouting opportunities in the country of 64 million people.

As many as 30 people were killed and hundreds of buildings torched in rioting in Muslim-majority border towns, Myanmar’s Eleven Media Group reported, citing an eyewitness account by one of its reporters. Photos on its website showed thick smoke rising above village roads and security forces with guns standing close to groups of Rohingyas.

Alleged Rape

The unrest began after an alleged rape prompted a mob of Rakhine Buddhists to murder 10 Rohingyas last week, Thein Sein’s adviser, Ko Ko Hlaing, said on June 8. Myanmar imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in four towns in Rakhine state and prohibited more than five people from gathering in public areas, according to the New Light of Myanmar.

“We have strengthened our vigilance along the border with Myanmar,” said Rahman, second in command of Border Guard Bangladesh 42 Battalion in Teknaf, the country’s southernmost point bordering Myanmar. “In the morning, about 100 Rohingyas in three trawlers tried to get into Bangladesh, but we did not let them in,” he said by phone.

Fighting broke out yesterday in Sittwe, Rakhine’s capital, leaving five people injured, the Irrawaddy news website reported, citing an unidentified hospital official. The Indian Ocean port is the origin of oil and gas pipelines being built by China National Petroleum Corp. that stretch to Yunnan province.

‘Important Test’

Rohingyas, Sunni Muslims who are descended from Arab traders, aren’t among the 135 ethnic groups officially recognized by Myanmar’s government, which prevents them from obtaining citizenship and traveling freely throughout the country. Most live in three towns near the border with Bangladesh, where about 265,000 Rohingyas live in or around refugee camps, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In the early 1990s, Bangladesh forcibly repatriated about 50,000 Rohingyas to Myanmar, also known as Burma, before the two countries allowed the UNHCR to observe the process, according to Human Rights Watch. From 2006 to 2010, 920 have been resettled to third countries, mostly to Canada, Australia and the U.K., according to the UNHCR.

Thein Sein’s policies toward the Rohingya are largely similar to those of the former junta even though his appeals to stop ethnic hatred were positive, according to Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch. The government restricts access to Rakhine state, making it difficult to verify reports coming from the area, he said.

The conflict “is probably one of the most trenchant and difficult of the ethnic problems because it involves sectarian hatred and violence between two groups within a state,” Robertson said by phone. “This is an early but important test of the government’s commitment to a multi-ethnic Burma.”

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