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Myanmar communities torn apart by sectarian unrest

Deadly communal clashes in western Myanmar have cleaved apart communities, leaving Buddhists and Muslims deeply sceptical about whether they can ever live side by side again.

world Updated: Jun 20, 2012 11:27 IST

Deadly communal clashes in western Myanmar have cleaved apart communities, leaving Buddhists and Muslims deeply sceptical about whether they can ever live side by side again.

Dozens of people have been killed in unrest which has swept Rakhine state, with tens of thousands of people displaced as neighbourhoods were set ablaze and knife-wielding mobs stalked the streets.

Both sides blame the other for the cycle of revenge attacks, apparently sparked by the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman and the subsequent lynching of 10 Muslims by a crowd of angry Buddhists.

The spasm of violence has exposed deep divisions between the mostly Buddhist ethnic Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya, and prospects for reconciliation between the communities appear distant.

"We lived together in the past. We are very sorry this is happening because we used to help each other," said Mya Win, 48, who sought refuge during the unrest in a monastery with other ethnic Rakhine women and children.

"But they (the Muslims) started to attack us. Although we were friends before, I don't want to see them at all now because we have no home... it is impossible to live together in the future," she added.

A Muslim from near the state capital Sittwe, who has taken his family to live with relatives in a predominately Muslim village, was equally adamant that the damage to community relations was beyond repair.

"I will not return to live in my village, not with them," the 36-year-old man told AFP by telephone, requesting anonymity.

Explaining why his family -- his wife, two sons and a younger sister -- fled their home, he said the head of the village told him their neighbours could turn on them at any moment.

"It was easy to live together in this village before. My family has lived there for 50 years. We were like one big family. But the crisis began and they hate us... they do not want to see our faces."

While not all Muslims in Rakhine are Rohingya, other followers of the religion have also been caught up in the unrest.

Stateless and described by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, the Rohingya are viewed by Myanmar's government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

There are an estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar -- where they are commonly referred to as "Bengalis" -- and about 300,000 in Bangladesh, which has turned away hundreds more trying to flee the violence this month.

Thousands of homes have been burned down and tens of thousands of people are sheltering in camps.

Analysts say festering resentments must be addressed if the communities are to live in peace.

"Latent tensions have existed for many years between the Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine," said Jacques Leider, a historian at the French School of the Far East who is based in northern Thailand.

"The pre-requisite for living together is agreement on something," he added, explaining that sore points between the communities must be soothed if they are to co-exist.

Rakhine was previously home to many villages where Muslims and Buddhists lived in relative harmony.

But even before clashes rocked the state there were divisions, and the majority of Rohingya now live in three northern districts.

According to the UN they face discrimination including restrictions on their movements, and lack land rights, education and public services.

"In the past, there has been no attempt at reconciliation," said Aung Thu Nyein, an analyst at the Thailand-based Vahu Development Institute.

"It will take time to recover from the trauma," he said.

But among the bleak portents, there remains some hope that bonds built over years living side by side are strong enough to endure the violence.

"For over a thousand years we have lived together peacefully," says Abu Tahay, an official with the Democratic Party National Development, which represents the Rohingya.

"If the authorities and the government take responsibility, it will be easy to live together," he said.

First Published: Jun 20, 2012 11:25 IST