YANGON The United States on Tuesday praised Myanmar's response to recent deadly sectarian fighting, despite criticism by rights group Amnesty International that Muslim Rohingyas are still fleeing arbitrary arrest by border forces.
The comments come a day after a district court sentenced two men to death for the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman whose killing triggered nearly a week of communal mob violence that threatened to derail Myanmar's fragile year-old democracy.
Washington's vote of confidence has given a boost to reformist President Thein Sein, a former general whose quasi-civilian government faced intense international pressure to contain the violence after a year of startling democratic reforms convinced the United States and European Union to suspend sanctions.
After two days of clashes between Muslim Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, the president on June 10 declared a state of emergency in Rakhine state, sent security reinforcements, imposed a curfew and made a televised address.
"This is something we would not have seen in the past. The government is trying to help everybody who needs it whether that is Rakhine Buddhists or Muslims," Michael Thurston, the U.S. embassy's charge d'affaires in Myanmar, told Reuters in his office in Yangon.
Despite the upbeat U.S. assessment, much of northern Rakhine state remains a no-go area from which journalists and independent observers are banned, making it impossible to verify the government's version of events.
The World Food Programme said on Tuesday the recent violence had displaced 90,000 people, or three times more than the government's estimate. This has raised fears that the official death toll of 50 could also rise dramatically.
There has also been no mention in state media of hundreds of Rohingyas attempting to flee into neighboring Bangladesh, a point London-based Amnesty International highlighted in a report on Tuesday.
"The basic humanitarian needs of these people must be met immediately, as many still lack adequate food, water, shelter, and medical attention," Amnesty said, urging the government to allow local and international aid agencies "full and unhindered access" to all displaced people.
Amnesty said an estimated 1,500 people had been illegally denied refuge across the border last week by Bangladesh. Bangladesh border guards detained at least 150 Rohingya men on Monday trying to enter in small boats.
"They were fleeing a wave of mostly arbitrary arrests by Myanmar border forces."
The clashes follow a year of dramatic political change, including the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, the signing of peace deals with ethnic minority rebel groups and the holding of by-elections dominated by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party.
Three Rohingyas were arrested after the 27-year-old Buddhist woman was killed on May 28 but one hanged himself while in custody. The New Light of Myanmar said the two others were sentenced to death in a court in Rakhine Kyaukphyu district.
Following the woman's murder, about 300 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists beat to death 10 Muslims they wrongly believed were connected to the rape, according to witnesses. Those killings sparked Rohingya riots that descended into mob violence by both sides. No one has been held accountable for the Muslim killings.
Thurston said the government had been quick to ask for international help, in sharp contrast to the sluggish request for assistance by the then-ruling generals following Cyclone Nargis, which killed at least 138,000 people in 2008.
"The response this time is far and away better than Cyclone Nargis," Thurston said. "It's not just myself that thinks this. Most of my colleagues agree that this has been a very different and better response."
If there are human rights abuses, the United States wants to see them fully investigated, a U.S. embassy spokesman added.
Aid workers in Rakhine, however, say thousands of displaced Rakhines and Rohingyas remained in dire conditions more than a week after the violence.
"The response of government is still so slow and the help of the government has been weak since June 10," said Khaing Kaung San, a member of local relief group Wan Latt Foundation, which is running some camps for displaced people in Rakhine state.
News coverage of the relief effort in the state-run New Light of Myanmar, which consists mainly of photos of senior military officers donating supplies, also strongly resembles the junta's post-cyclone response.
Security fears and poor infrastructure have hindered relief efforts, keeping many aid groups on the sidelines.
Rakhine state officials say eight aid groups, including the Red Cross and World Food Programme, were providing assistance.
Tensions stem from an entrenched distrust of around 800,000 Rohingyas, who are recognized by neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh, and are largely considered illegal immigrants.
The government had yet to address the underlying problem, Amnesty said. "Restoring the pre-violence status quo is not sufficient," it said, "as systemic discrimination against the Rohingyas characterizes decades of state policy in Myanmar."
(Additional reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall; Editing by Jason Szep and Jeremy Laurence)