Myanmar communal bloodshed leaves deep scars

Charred stumps and scattered rubbish are all that remain of a once-bustling community in strife-torn western Myanmar, just one of many razed to the ground in recent communal violence.

The clashes which broke out in June between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have left dozens of people dead and torn apart communities, forcing tens of thousands on both sides to seek refuge in dusty camps and shelters.

Nawseema Har Tu Fa said she fled her village after it was torched during the wave of violence that turned longtime neighbours into bitter enemies.

"We had no problem with the Buddhist people before. We never quarrelled with them before. We lived together, we used to speak. We went to the market every day together," she recounted in a village near the Rakhine state capital Sittwe where many Rohingya have sought sanctuary.

"The main reason we came here is to protect our children, otherwise they might have died there."

An estimated 70,000 people -- 50,000 Rohingya and 20,000 Buddhists -- are in emergency accommodation in the Sittwe area, police told an AFP reporter who visited the remote region near the border with Bangladesh.

They languish in camps or cramped monasteries, dependent on food handouts.

"There are no houses or shelter in their own villages, they were all burned down, so that's why they are here," said Soe Myint, manager of the Kaung Dokar refugee camp, one of six Rohingya camps in Sittwe.

Almost 90 people, both Buddhists and Rohingya, were killed during the violence in June, according to official figures which rights groups fear grossly underestimate the real toll.

The riots broke out after a Buddhist woman was allegedly raped and murdered by a group of Rohingya men.

Access to affected areas is restricted by the authorities, which say that the situation has been relatively calm in recent weeks.

But officials reported that renewed clashes left several people dead earlier this month, underscoring the tinderbox atmosphere.

Rohingya driven from their homes are not allowed to leave the camps -- ostensibly for their own safety. But the restriction has left the Rohingya community out of work and reliant on World Food Programme supplies.

"We do not have enough food, as we do not have the possibility to go to Sittwe downtown to buy everything we need," said displaced Rohingya Abu Shukur.

Faced with heavy criticism from rights groups and outcry from the Muslim world after the unrest, Myanmar's government has denied accusations of abuse of Rohingya villagers by security forces in Rakhine.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused Myanmar forces of opening fire on Rohingya during the June outbreak of unrest, as well as committing rape and standing by as rival mobs attacked each other.

Speaking a dialect similar to one in neighbouring Bangladesh, the Rohingya are seen as illegal immigrants by the Myanmar government and many Burmese, who describe them as "Bengalis" or "kalar" -- a derogatory term for Muslims.

"Successive governments and regimes have taken in the Muslim kalar, illegally allowing them in" in return for bribes, said senior monk Oo Ku Maar Ka, the head of Gade Chay Monastery.

In a report sent to Myanmar's parliament earlier this month, the country's reformist President Thein Sein accused Buddhist monks, politicians and other ethnic Rakhine figures of kindling hatred towards the Rohingya.

"Rakhine people are continuously thinking to terrorise the Bengali Muslims living across the country," he said, adding that ethnic Rakhine could not envisage sharing their land with people they consider foreigners.

"They cannot consider a situation in which the Bengali Muslims can be citizens," the president said according to the report, which was seen by AFP.

Myanmar recently announced it had set up a new commission to establish the cause of the sectarian clashes and recommend measures to ease tensions and find "ways for peaceful coexistence".

For now that appears a distant goal as deep mistrust poisons relations between the segregated communities.

"We knew the ones who burned down our houses," said Saw Saw, one of thousands of displaced Rakhine Buddhists sheltering in local monasteries. "If Rohingya from outside come in then it will be even worse."

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