Myanmar sectarian unrest 'displaces more than 30,000'

Sectarian bloodshed has displaced tens of thousands of people, left dozens dead and many homes destroyed in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, a senior official said Thursday.

Twenty-nine people -- 16 Muslims and 13 Buddhists -- have been killed since Friday, with scores more wounded and nearly 2,600 homes burned, said Htein Lin, security and border affairs minister for Rakhine.

The toll does not include 10 Muslims beaten to death on June 3 by a Buddhist mob in apparent revenge for the rape and murder of a woman, which sparked the violence.

Nearly 31,900 people from both sides are being housed in 37 camps across Rakhine, Htein Lin said at the first press conference by officials in the state capital Sittwe since widespread rioting began on Friday.

The Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya in the region have accused each other of violent attacks, and in recent days local residents have been seen on the streets wielding knives, swords and sticks.

Speaking in Geneva where she began a historic trip to Europe -- her first since 1988 -- opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi stressed "the need for rule of law" when asked about the sectarian unrest.

She told reporters: "Without the rule of law such communal strife will only continue."

Rohingya leaders have called on Suu Kyi to draw attention to their plight.

"Our appeal is to the UN, foreign nations, the Myanmar government and especially to Suu Kyi," Mohammad Islam, leader of Rohingya refugees living in a camp in the Bangladesh border town of Teknaf, told AFP on Wednesday.

"Aung San Suu Kyi hasn't done or said anything for us, yet the Rohingya including my parents campaigned for her in the 1990 elections. Like most other Burmese people, she is silent about the rights of Rohingya," he added.

Decades of discrimination have left the Muslim Rohingya stateless and viewed by the United Nations as among the most persecuted minorities on the planet.

About 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar, according to the UN, mostly in Rakhine.

Speaking a Bengali dialect similar to one in southeast Bangladesh, the Rohingya have long been treated as "foreign" by the Myanmar government and many Burmese, a situation activists say has fostered rifts with Rakhine's Buddhists.

The Rohingya are subject to forced labour, restrictions on freedom of movement, lack of land rights, education and public services, according to a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report published in December.

An uneasy calm has now returned to central Sittwe, which is under a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

But evidence of the violence lingers: a decomposing body was seen in a sewage drain in the city.

Hla Thein, Rakhine state chief justice, told reporters that "nobody won, nobody benefited" from the violence.

"What we got was refugees," he added. "Everyone has a duty to prevent this happening again... but it's very difficult to talk about peace when both sides don't really trust each other."

Hundreds of Rohingya, many of them women and children, have attempted to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh in rickety boats in recent days, but have been turned away.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, has urged the reformist government to tackle the "root cause" of discrimination against Muslim Rohingya living in the strife-hit region.

"The underlying tensions that stem from discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities pose a threat to Myanmar's democratic transition and stability," he said in a statement released late Wednesday in Geneva.

"I urge all sides to exercise restraint, respect the law and refrain from violence."

President Thein Sein, a former general credited for a string of political reforms since taking power last year, has imposed a state of emergency in Rakhine over the unrest, seen as a major test for his government.

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