Sittwe, Myanmar - Armed troops patrolled Myanmar's northwest city of Sittwe on Friday as a fragile peace held in the wake of days of sectarian violence that has stoked nationalist fervour and displaced 30 000 people, with many feared dead.
Heavy rain kept many residents indoors in the Rakhine state capital and police and aid groups struggled to get food to thousands of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas displaced by rioting and arson that have presented a big test to Myanmar's 15-month-old quasi-civilian government.
United Nations officials told Reuters three of their staff, two from the UNHCR refugee agency and one from the World Food Programme (WFP), all Myanmar nationals, had been detained by police in the Rohingya-dominated town of Buthidaung for unknown reasons.
The WFP had provided hundreds of sacks of rice to some areas, said Aye Win, spokesman for its operations in Myanmar.
“We will try to get to other camps as soon as we can, when it is safe and secure. We are doing as much as we can. We will go in but security is paramount,” he added.
More than 20 houses were burned down late on Thursday in a village near Sittwe, residents said, adding to the 2 500 torched in the past week. But there were no reports of further deaths.
An unknown number of people fleeing the turmoil were currently adrift in boats on the Naf River that marks the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the UNHCR said. Bangladesh, like Myanmar, does not recognise Rohingyas as citizens, and has turned back several boats this week.
The violence, which the government said had killed 29 people and displaced 30 000 as of Thursday, is a major setback for a rapidly reforming Myanmar that has seen a year of dramatic political change after 49 years of oppressive military rule.
The new government has made peace and unity among Myanmar's many ethnic groups its mantra and has struck ceasefire deals with minority Karen, Shan, Mon and Chin rebels, among others, after decades of hostilities.
The Muslim community's Friday prayers were cancelled in Sittwe and surrounding villages to avoid a repeat of riots that erupted in the town of Maungdaw a week ago and spread to other parts of Rakhine state.
“Officials do not want large gatherings and want to avoid more violence. They (Muslims) will be able to pray at home,” Shwe Maung, a Muslim member of parliament for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, told Reuters.
What triggered the rampage of rock-hurling, arson and machete attacks is unclear and the subject of heated debate, with protests taking place in other regions and Facebook pages and other websites inundated with inflammatory comments.
There is entrenched, long-standing animosity in the state bordering Bangladesh between Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Muslim Rohingyas, of whom there are an estimated 800 000, most living in abject conditions.
The crisis has put President Thein Sein in a tight spot. His government is under pressure from rights groups and Western countries to show compassion towards the Rohingyas but if there is any change in policy towards them, it could face the wrath of the public, many of whom regard them as illegal immigrants.
U.N. special envoy to Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, who visited Rakhine state on Thursday, praised the government for a “prompt, firm and sensitive” response to the crisis and in a statement called for a “full, impartial and credible” investigation into the incident urgently.
A dawn-to-dusk curfew remained in place in Sittwe and many Rohingyas had been moved out by security forces, said Hla Maung, who is in charge of a camp looking after Rakhine Buddhists, close to a near-empty Rohingya neighbourhood.
On a visit to the Philippines, Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Wunna Maung Lwin told Reuters everything was being done to ensure the situation remained stable.
“We have taken care of everything, we give priority to the stability of the state. Sittwe is back to normal,” Wunna Maung Lwin said.
Nobel laureate and opposition parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi expressed concern over the violence on Thursday.
Speaking in Switzerland on the first leg of a five-country European tour, she sidestepped a question about whether she supported granting citizenship to Rohingyas and said resolving the Rakhine conflict required “delicacy and sensitivity”.
Relations between the two communities have always been uneasy and tension flared last month after the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist Rakhine woman that was blamed on Muslims.
That led to the killing of 10 Muslims in reprisal on June 3, when a Buddhist mob stopped a bus they were travelling on. The passengers had no connection to the murdered woman. State media said three Muslims are on trial for the woman's death. - Reuters