COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims have tried to flee sectarian violence in Myanmar by boat into Bangladesh but have been pushed back by authorities, border officials said on Tuesday, deepening a crisis threatening Myanmar’s nascent democracy.
The United States and European Union urged calm to prevent a derailing of Myanmar’s fragile reforms after four days of unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state, where a state of emergency has been declared to quell a spree of arson and machete attacks in which least eight people have been killed.
Bangladeshi paramilitaries, police and coastguard pushed back 12 wooden boats on Monday carrying 300 Rohingyas, mostly women and children, and witnesses said three more with some 150 people on board were drifting in waters close to the border.
Witnesses said they saw just 20 Rohingyas who had made it into Bangladesh, about half of whom were injured, but their whereabouts were not known. A Bangladeshi official on St Martin’s island said the remaining boats had tried to reach the shore but were turned back.
“The boats moved around for a couple of days trying to land on this island but eventually were driven out of our water this morning,” Mohammed Nurul Amin, head of a district council, told Reuters by telephone.
“Islanders are also keeping an eye out for any further crossing attempts,” he said.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s government regards the estimated 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas in the country as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh has refused to grant Rohingyas refugee status since 1992.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry said it supported Myanmar’s efforts to restore order and said it was acting in the best interests of both countries by ensuring developments in Myanmar “do not have any trans-boundary spill-over”. The countries are separated by a river flowing into the Bay of Bengal.
The stateless Rohingyas live in abject conditions and are deeply resented in Rakhine state. Rohingya activists have demanded recognition as a Myanmar ethnic group, claiming a centuries-old lineage to Rakhine.
Rioting broke out in Rohingya-dominated districts in western Myanmar on Friday but spread to the biggest city, Sittwe, where security forces have battled to restore order, shooting into the air to drive away mobs armed with wooden staves, knives and slingshots as flames engulfed homes and other buildings.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday echoed Myanmar President Thein Sein’s warning that the unrest threatened to endanger democratic and economic reforms in the former Burma if it spiralled out of control.
“The situation in Rakhine state underscores the critical need for mutual respect among all ethnic and religious groups and for serious efforts to achieve national reconciliation,” Clinton said in a statement.
“OUT OF CONTROL”
Thein Sein has said national reconciliation was a top priority for ethnically diverse Myanmar. The unrest is the biggest challenge to face his reformist government since it replaced a military junta in March last year.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called for diplomats and foreign journalists to be given access to the area and criticised Thein Sein for handing power to security forces. It said troops had opened fire on Rohingyas in Rakhine State, also known by its former name Arakan.
“Deadly violence in Arakan State is spiralling out of control under the government’s watch,” the group’s deputy Asia director, Elaine Pearson, said in a statement.
What sparked the rioting is not known, but it came as tension between Buddhists and Muslims simmered in the wake of reports of a gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, widely blamed on Muslims.
That led to the killing of 10 Muslims on June 3, when a Buddhist mob stopped a bus they were travelling on. The dead bus passengers had no connection to the murdered woman; state media says three Muslims are on trial for the woman’s death.
Medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres suspended its operations in the area on Tuesday, a day after the U.N. refugee agency finished pulling out its staff. More than 4,000 people driven from their homes are in six shelters, Myanmar state media said.
Curfews are in place in three Myanmar towns, including Thandwe, the gateway to tourist beaches, and Kyaukphyu, where China is building a port complex.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin urged Chinese citizens and companies to boost safety precautions and said China “supports Myanmar’s efforts in maintaining stability and ethnic harmony”.
The curfews underline the risk to Myanmar’s attempts to coax tourists and investors into the country after the recent suspension of European and United States sanctions.
Security was also stepped up along Bangladesh’s 172 km (107-mile) border with Myanmar to stem the flow of refugees.
“Local people are trying to supply food and drinking water to them but coastguard and police have foiled them,” Abdur Rahim Jehadi, a reporter on St. Martin’s island, told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Anis Ahmed, Serajul Quadir, Ruma Paul in Dhaka and Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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