Human rights groups decry Myanmar ethnic strife

Associated Press
An armed police officer guards as Muslim refugees stand behind him at a refugee camp in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State, western Myanmar, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. Western Myanmar appeared calm Saturday after almost a week of deadly ethnic strife, a government spokesman said as human rights groups called for action to end the violence that one said it has documented with satellite imagery. Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing there were no immediate reports of fresh clashes between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya communities. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)
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SITTWE, Myanmar (AP) — Human rights groups urged an end of sectarian violence in western Myanmar on Saturday, with one releasing satellite photos of what it said was an entire section of a town apparently burned to the ground by a marauding mob.

A government spokesman for the region affected by almost a week of ethnic strife said the area was calm Saturday.

Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said no new clashes were reported between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

Human rights organizations insisted, however, that Myanmar's government act more strongly to end the spasms of killing and destruction in the area. Human Rights Watch said the Rohingya "are under vicious attack" and in urgent need of government protection.

It released satellite photos showing extensive destruction in a predominantly Rohingya area of one of the townships where violence was reported this past week.

Myanmar state television reported Friday night that 67 people died, 95 were injured and 2,818 houses were burned down from Sunday through Thursday in seven of Rakhine's townships.

The casualty figures have not been broken down by ethnic group. Human Rights Watch said the Rohingya had suffered the brunt of the violence. It said the true death toll may be higher, based on witness accounts and the government's history of minimizing news that might reflect badly on it.

"These latest incidents between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhists demonstrate how urgent it is that the authorities intervene to protect everyone, and break the cycle of discrimination and violence," Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific deputy director, Isabelle Arradon, said in a statement.

In June, ethnic violence in Rakhine killed at least 90 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes. About 75,000 people have been living in refugee camps since then. Curfews have been in place in some areas since the earlier violence and were extended this past week.

Ill will between the two ethnic groups goes back decades, and discrimination against the Rohingya was encouraged by Myanmar's previous military regimes to enlist popular support among other groups.

The Rohingya also face official discrimination. A 1984 law effectively deprives most Rohingya of citizenship and denies them many basic civil rights.

"Unless the authorities also start addressing the root causes of the violence, it is only likely to get worse," Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch said its satellite photos showed the destruction of a Rohingya neighborhood in the coastal town of Kyaukpyu, where arson attacks reportedly took place Wednesday.

"The area of destruction measures 35 acres and includes 633 buildings and 178 houseboats and floating barges adjacent on the water, all of which were razed," the group said.

It cited media accounts and local officials as saying that many Rohingya had fled the town by boat toward Sittwe, the Rakhine capital, 200 kilometers (120 miles) to the north.

Officials in Bangladesh have said thousands of Rohingya refugees have also sought to flee there by boat. Bangladeshi policy is to refuse them entry.

The deep roots of the conflict involve a dispute over the origin of the Rohingya. Although many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely denigrated as intruders who came from Bangladesh to steal scarce land.

The U.N. estimates their population in Myanmar at 800,000, but the government does not recognize them as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups.

The U.N. warned Thursday that the crisis had sent a new wave of refugees to seek shelter in camps already overcrowded from the June violence.

Human Rights Watch deplored conditions in the camps, and said many Rohingya there are denied access to adequate humanitarian aid and vulnerable to attack.

Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said Saturday the government was providing assistance to people who lost their homes, and had distributed aid provided by Turkey. He said the United Nations and private agencies were traveling to affected areas to provide aid.

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