YANGON: Myanmar declared a state of emergency on Sunday in its western Rakhine state, official media said, amid fears of further unrest following an eruption of deadly sectarian violence.
An order was signed into effect by President Thein Sein in response to clashes that saw hundreds of Buddhist villagers’ homes set ablaze and left seven dead in rioting on Friday and Saturday, state television said.
The violence in Rakhine threatens to undermine the progress of Myanmar’s new government, which took power last year following decades of outright military rule and has ushered in a series of reforms.
The emergency order was effective “until (a) further order”, according to the report, which said it was “intended to restore security and stability to the people immediately”.
“The unrest and terrorist acts have been increasing,” it said.
Rakhine state is named for its dominant, mostly Buddhist ethnic group, but is also home to a large Muslim population including the Rohingya, a stateless people described by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya foreigners and not one of the nation’s ethnic groups, while many citizens see them as illegal immigrants and view them with hostility.
Earlier, state media announced a number of measures – including a curfew in the state capital Sittwe and three other towns, as well as bans on groups of more than five people – but the moves appear to have failed to quell tensions.
A cycle of apparent revenge attacks has gripped the state following the recent rape and murder of a Rakhine woman.
Last Sunday, an angry Buddhist mob, mistakenly believing the perpetrators of the rape were on board a bus, beat 10 Muslim passengers to death.
Rioting then flared Friday when at least four Buddhists were killed in the state, with a second wave of violence in remote villages early Saturday.
Police and military units have been deployed to bring an end to the unrest, in which 17 people were also wounded and nearly 500 houses destroyed, according to official media.
A Sittwe resident who declined to be named told AFP he saw an ethnic Rakhine man stabbed and attempts to torch more homes early Sunday, and a standoff between Rakhine and Rohingya groups near the university in the afternoon.
AFP was not able to verify the account.
“If the situation goes on like this, there will be no security for the town’s people. We dare not stay and are afraid of the night time,” the man told AFP.
Accusing the Rohingya of “invading”, he branded the weekend’s unrest as “terrorist”.
The tensions have raised fears of a spiral of retaliatory violence, with the state newspaper New Light of Myanmar on Sunday warning of “anarchy”.
Earlier in the day, around 600 ethnic Rakhine gathered at the Shwedagon Pagoda, a revered Buddhist site in the main city of Yangon, demanding “Bengalis” – a term often used for Muslim communities living near the border with Bangladesh – be “removed from Myanmar”.
People held up pictures of burning villages and victims apparently beaten in the attacks as well as banners proclaiming “Save the Rakhine”.
“(The fighting) harms national security, national interests and the rule of law. This is not only the problem of the country, but also the problem of the whole world,” said Tin Htoo Aung, chairman of the Rakhine National Network activist group.
Myanmar’s Muslims — of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent – account for an estimated four per cent of the roughly 60 million population in a country where experts say many people believe Buddhism forms an intrinsic part of national identity.
According to the UN, Myanmar has an estimated 750,000 Rohingya, living mainly in Rakhine. Another one million or more are thought to live in other countries.
In Bangladesh, authorities said they were stepping up security along the border and in the refugee camps where around 300,000 Rohingya live.
President Thein Sein has overseen dramatic moves to bring Myanmar out of international isolation.
The regime has also signed tentative ceasefire deals with a number of rebel groups in recent months as it seeks to draw a line under civil conflicts that have racked parts of the country since independence in 1948.
However, conflict rumbles on in some parts of the impoverished country, particularly in the far north.