YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar’s government could call a state of emergency in Rakhine state if sectarian violence continues there, a legislator said Saturday.
A total of 67 people have been killed and 95 wounded in clashes this past week between Buddhists and Muslims in the western state, the government-run New Light of Myanmar and other newspapers reported Saturday.
“We will declare a state of emergency” if the violence continues, Home Minister Lt. Gen. Ko Ko said Friday, according to Phyo Min Thein, an opposition member of the Lower House who spoke with a German press agency Saturday.
The minister was responding to a proposal by the opposition National League for Democracy to address the clashes, Phyo Min Thein said.
A hospital was treating 26 people hurt in the clashes, most suffering from gunshot wounds, staff told a photographer from the european pressphoto agency in Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital, about 310 miles northwest of Yangon.
Violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya Muslims reportedly has spread to at least four townships over recent days, with the government struggling to restore order by imposing dusk-to-dawn curfews in some areas and stepping up security.
It’s not fully clear what sparked the most recent round of attacks that started last Sunday. The death toll itself was also murky, with officials initially reporting Friday that 112 had been killed, but later scaling back the number to 67.
One thing that is clear, however, is the distrust between the two communities goes back decades. Myanmar’s estimated 800,000 Muslim Rohingya are officially stateless, with many among the Buddhist majority viewing them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government has refused since 1992 to grant them citizenship. The Rohingya say they’ve lived in Myanmar for generations.
On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged the government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, to try to immediately halt the violence as she called for unfettered access to the affected area by international humanitarian groups.
Western Rakhine state, where the violence has occurred, has grabbed the headlines, but Myanmar faces ethnic and religious tension on multiple fronts. Although the recently installed civilian government has signed cease-fire agreements with several of the country’s ethnic groups, these don’t amount to peace deals, and government troops continue to battle ethnic Kachin insurgents along the northern border with China.
Some have compared the current situation to the violence seen after the Soviet Union’s collapse as ironclad rule ended, leading to the airing of long-suppressed animosities in Europe. A protracted war in the Balkans followed.
Those in Myanmar hope bloodshed can be contained even as they acknowledge the risk. “The situation remains tense and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” said Aung Naing Oo, a member of a 27-person commission formed by the government to investigate the violence, who returned from a weeklong trip to Rakhine state Wednesday. “What I have seen or heard reminds me of former Yugoslavia.
“Both the Rakhine and Muslims are victims of neglect from the previous governments,” he added. “As with any conflict where blood is spilled, reconciliations are always difficult.”
This week’s flare-up is reportedly the worst since June, when more than 80 Muslims and Buddhists were killed in clashes after an alleged rape, forcing at least 75,000 people from their homes. Many remain in makeshift camps.