YANGON (Reuters) - Homes burned and gunshots rang out as sectarian violence raged for a fifth day on Tuesday between Muslims and Buddhists, threatening the country’s nascent democracy.
Security forces struggled to stem the worst communal violence since a reformist government replaced an oppressive junta last year and vowed to forge unity in one of Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries.
President Thein Sein faces mounting international pressure to end the bloodshed in coastal Rakhine state and quell growing nationalist anger in the predominantly Buddhist country against stateless Muslim Rohingyas before the violence spreads further.
The unrest undermines the carefully crafted image of ethnic unity and stability that persuaded the United States and Europe to suspend economic sanctions in the former Burma, while increasing curfews could threaten tourism and foreign investment - rewards for emerging from nearly half a century of army rule.
Fires engulfed homes and gunshots rang through the streets of Sittwe, a port town riven by tensions between Buddhists and Rohingyas, who have long demanded recognition as an indigenous ethnic group but are denied citizenship.
“Sittwe is like a war zone,” said Shwe Maung, a Muslim lawmaker in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party for the Rakhine town of Buthidaung. He urged the army to intervene and accused police of allowing Buddhists to break the curfew and burn Muslim houses.
“The police are not properly controlling the situation.”
Aung Myat Kyaw, a member of the Rakhine state parliament, said at least one Buddhist was killed in rioting in Sittwe on Tuesday. “Violence between each group is still continuing and is getting worse,” he said.
Hundreds of Rohingyas have fled in rickety boats for the shores of neighboring Bangladesh but are being turned back to sea by authorities there, say Bangladesh border officials. Many of the boats, packed with women and children, are left drifting.
Groups of Buddhists patrolled the streets, some armed with bamboo stakes, machetes and sling-shots, witnesses said. Rohingyas were seen setting homes alight and throwing rocks. Min San Aye, Rakhine’s Fire Department Chief, said some Rohingyas blocked roads.
Shwe Maung, the Muslim lawmaker, put the death toll at 50 in the village of Narzi, not far from Sittwe. The official death toll in state media remains eight, but local authorities say the number is far higher.
Food supplies were running low, a hotel worker in Sittwe said. “Almost all of the shops have closed. We only have a little bit to eat because the market is also closed.”
The United States and European Union have urged calm to prevent a derailing of Myanmar’s fragile reforms.
The crisis is likely to force Thein Sein, a former general, to confront an issue that human rights groups have criticized for years: the plight of thousands of Rohingyas who live along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh in abject conditions.
“Unless the government takes steps not just to end the violence but also lay the groundwork for protection of minority communities, there is a risk of the violence spreading,” the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental research organization, said in a report on Tuesday.
“How the government handles this case will be a major test of the police and courts in a country that has just begun to emerge from an authoritarian past. It will also test the government’s will and capacity to reverse a longstanding policy of discrimination toward the Muslim Rohingya.”
The violence follows a year of dramatic political changes, including the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, the signing of peace deals with restive ethnic groups and the holding of a historic by-election dominated by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party.
In Bangladesh, police and coastguard officials pushed back 12 wooden boats on Monday carrying 300 Rohingyas, mostly women and children. Three more boats packed with some 150 people were drifting in waters close to the border, witnesses said.
They added that half of about 20 Rohingyas who made it into Bangladesh were injured.
Medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres suspended operations in the area on Tuesday, a day after the U.N. refugee agency pulled out staff. More than 4,000 people driven from their homes are in six shelters, Myanmar state media said.
Rohingya activists claim their historic lineage in Rakhine dates back centuries, but Myanmar’s government regards the estimated 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh has refused to grant Rohingyas refugee status since 1992.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called for diplomats and foreign journalists to be given access to the area and criticized Thein Sein for handing power to security forces, saying troops had opened fire on Rohingyas.
Tension between Buddhists and Muslims has simmered in the wake of the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, widely blamed on Muslims.
That led to the killing of 10 Muslims on June 3, when a Buddhist mob stopped a bus they were traveling on. The passengers had no connection to the murdered woman; state media says three Muslims are on trial for the woman’s death.
Additional reporting by; Nurul Islam in Cox's Bazar, Andrew R.C. Marshall in Bangkok, Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Writing by Jason Szep