The sectarian violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has dangerous consequences and international ramifications.
Dozens of Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Buddhist mobs in Rakhine, which has been rocked by a wave of rioting and arson, posing a major test for Myanmar’s reformist government which took power last year.
A state of emergency has been declared in the region.
The US has called for an immediate halt to violence, and the UN has evacuated its workers from Rakhine state.
But the unrest does not seem to be abating. Boatloads of Rohingya Muslims are fleeing the fighting to the shores of Bangladesh. Yet Bangladeshi paramilitaries, police and coastguard have turned them away.
Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said at a news conference in Dhaka that it was not in the country’s interest to accept any refugees because its resources are already strained.
Bangladesh says Rohingyas have been living in Myanmar for centuries and that Myanmar should recognize them as citizens. But Myanmar considers them illegal immigrants. So they are stateless, like the stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh.
Buddhist citizens view Rohingyas with hostility, describing them as “Bengalis”.
The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates 800,000 Rohingyas live in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
They have been described by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
In the 1990s, about 250,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh. Myanmar took back most of them, leaving some 28,000 in two camps run by the government and the United Nations.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has called for international observers to be deployed in Rakhine.
“Why is the international community pulling out at this time? Is the threat at a level that warrants it?” asked Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division.
The sectarian violence is not good for Myanmar’s nascent democracy, a fact highlighted by a commentary published last week in government mouthpiece the New Light of Myanmar.
“A single spark may well set the whole hillside on fire,” said the headline.
There are elements on both sides of the sectarian divide who want to exploit this flare-up of violence for their own benefit.
Now it is up to the new government in Myanmar to see to it that the sectarian fire is doused as soon as possible.