Myanmar President Thein Sein has warned of a clampdown after a new round of sectarian killings in Myanmar's Rakhine state, as the ongoing violence threatens to mar the country's historic reforms.
"The army, police and authorities in cooperation with local people will try to restore peace and stability and will take legal action against any individual or organisation that is trying to instigate the unrest," the President's office warned in a statement yesterday.
The violence in Rakhine and a continuing war in the north against ethnic Kachin are perhaps the greatest challenges for Thein Sein as the country opens up.
Months of tension between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists came to a boil again with clashes on Sunday. Late on Tuesday, the violence engulfed the townships of Kyaukphyu and Myebon, both near the state capital Sittwe.
Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said at least 64 people had been killed in clashes since Sunday. Reports indicate that up to 3,000 homes were razed.
The death toll and destruction were lower than in June when the clashes began. Then, 90 people were killed and more than 3,000 homes destroyed. But this time, the clashes were in new areas.
Thein Sein's statement, reported in the state-run Myanma Ahlin newspaper, also noted: "As the international community is closely watching Myanmar's democratic transition, such unrest could tarnish the image of the country."
Rakhine Buddhists see Rohingya as "Bengali" immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. The government says they are illegal immigrants.
Rakhine state is the second- poorest in Myanmar. There are an estimated 800,000 Rohingya in the state - mostly in the north where the situation is said to be very tense, with the army deployed and a curfew in force.
Right-wing Burmans say they are against only the "Bengalis" - pointing out that other Muslims have lived harmoniously in cities like Yangon for generations.
Sittwe had 12 Rohingya villages before the conflict. Just one remains: Aung Min Ga Lar. With displaced Rohingya from around the countryside streaming in, Aung Min Ga Lar's population has risen from 5,000 to more than 8,000.
The village has become a ghetto, surrounded by makeshift barricades. Rohingya are afraid to venture out for fear of being attacked by Rakhines, who will not go in.
There is some state security but not enough to assuage the fear in the neighbourhood. Members of an adjacent Hindu community have taken to wearing homemade cards around their necks stating their names, addresses and the words "I am a Hindu" so that they are not mistaken for Rohingya.
Northwest of Sittwe, until last week, there were an estimated 65,000 to 70,000 Rohingya in camps, displaced by June's violence. The relative tolerance and degree of interdependence of the communities in Sittwe, where the population was about evenly split between Rohingya and Rakhine with a sprinkling of Hindus and Chinese, has been ruptured - some say permanently.
Regional security agencies are worried. "The policy of the government to segregate the Muslims in camps is a real potential breeding ground for fundamentalists," a Yangon-based diplomat told The Straits Times.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said on Thursday he was worried Myanmar's reforms could be jeopardised.
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