Rohingya Muslims: Burma (Myanmar) Muslims Appeal for Respite
- Burma Muslims Appeal for Respite
OnIslam & News Agencies
Thursday, 28 March 2013 00:00
NAYPYIDAW – As attacks continue on their property and worship places, Muslim leaders in Burma are appealing to President Thein Sein to intervene to stop Buddhist attacks on the minority.
"Massacres and damages to religious buildings and property are due to the weakness of the responsible authorities to protect and take effective action,” four Muslim groups said in a letter to the Burmese President cited by Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday, March 28.
At least 40 people have been killed and several mosques were burnt in a week of sectarian violence in the central city of Meiktila.
The violence spread to several towns in central Burma, forcing the government to impose emergency and curfews to halt the bloodshed.
The violence was triggered by an argument between a Buddhist couple and gold shop owners, escalating into deadly riots during which mosques were burned, houses razed and charred bodies left lying in the streets.
"These violent attacks include crimes such as arson and massacres which deserve heavy penalties," the Muslim groups, including the Islamic Religious Affairs Council, said in their letter to the president.
"However, in this situation the authorities neglected to take swift and effective action against the perpetrators who recklessly committed crimes in front of them.”
Tension between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma has been simmering since last year’s sectarian violence in western Rakhine state, which displaced thousands of Muslims.
Burma’s Muslims -- largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent -- account for an estimated four percent of the roughly 60 million population.
Muslims entered Burma en masse for the first time as indentured laborers from the Indian subcontinent during British colonial rule, which ended in 1948.
But despite their long history, they have never fully been integrated into the country.
The United Nations has also urged the Burmese government to investigate the anti-Muslim attacks.
“I think the government need to investigate exactly what happened and why did it escalate so quickly and so fast,” UN humanitarian coordinator Ashok Nigam told ABC’s News Radio.
“We are really concerned that it does not spread to more places.
“This is indeed unusual but it is difficult to say exactly why it is being instigated,” he said.
The UN envoy believes that Muslim homes and worship places had been targeted with "brutal efficiency".
"It seemed to have been done, in a sense, in almost a kind of brutal efficiency," Nambiar said as he visited shelter camps in Meiktila.
"Most of the people I spoke to tended to suggest the attacks were perpetrated by people they did not really recognize, and they may have been outsiders.
"But clearly they were targeted," he said.
The envoy blames the violence to “incendiary propaganda", including inciteful articles by Buddhist elements.
"Clearly there has been a fair amount of incendiary propaganda which has been going on amongst the various communities, which heightened the feeling between them," Nambiar said.
Burma is about 90 percent Buddhist and the majority are ethnically Burman, but the remaining people are a diverse group of over 100 ethnic and religious minorities.
Treating Buddhism as the state de facto religion, the Buddhist Burman majority was singled out as the trustworthy pillar of national identity.
Burma imposes curfews in townships after anti-Muslim violence
Public assemblies, marches and speeches are banned in three townships close to main city of Rangoon
Associated Press in Rangoon
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 26 March 2013 18.32 GMT
Authorities in Burma have imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in three townships after anti-Muslim religious violence touched new parts of the country, edging closer to the main city of Rangoon.
State television reported incidents in the three townships in Bago region, all within 100 miles (150km) of Rangoon. The latest attack on Monday night was in Gyobingauk, where it said "troublemakers" had damaged a religious building, shops and some houses.
The report said similar attacks on religious buildings, shops and houses had occurred in nearby Otepho and Min Hla on Sunday night. Official reports use the term "religious buildings" in an apparent attempt to dampen passion, though in most cases the targets were reportedly mosques.
The announcement said an emergency law known as section 144 would be applied in the three townships which will ban public assemblies, marches and speeches, and impose a 6pm to 6am curfew.
The religious unrest began with rioting a week ago in the central city of Meikhtila that was sparked by a dispute between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers.
The New Light of Myanmar newspaper said on Tuesday that eight more bodies were found in Meikhtila as soldiers cleared devastated areas set ablaze by anti-Muslim mobs during three days of rioting, bringing the death toll to 40. State TV said on Tuesday that although calm had been restored in Meikhtila, a 7pm to 4am curfew has been imposed to prevent any new violence.
Amid fears of spreading violence, shop owners in Rangoon, about 340 miles (550km) south of Meikhtila, were told to close by 8.30pm or 9pm on Monday. The fears appeared unfounded, but most Rangoon shops remained closed on Tuesday because of a national holiday.
The upsurge in sectarian unrest casts a shadow over President Thein Sein's administration as it struggles to make democratic changes after a half-century of military rule. Hundreds of people were killed last year and more than 100,000 made homeless in sectarian violence in western Burma between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas.
Reform, riot and return in Myanmar
Another riot between Muslims and Buddhists erupted in Myanmar. Was questionable nature of violence being plotted?
Last Modified: 25 Mar 2013 19:50
Chan Myae Khine
Since the Rohingya riot last year in June, the nation's tragedy has drawn the world's attention. The repeated riots leaves the world with doubt on the effectiveness emerging reforms. But recently, more violence - this time in Meikhtila, in the middle of Myanmar's Mandalay Division - has captured headlines. Human rights watchdogs, Rohingya advocates and reporters have all rushed to condemn Buddhist extremists as the source of the tension.
The background of the latest clash between Muslims and Buddhists, however, is not as clear cut as is reported. Although it is reported to be sectarian in nature, the characteristics of the latest flair of violence are utterly atypical, and at worst, planned. An insecure public, the nature of the extremists and the announcement of a state of emergency are indicative of a regression from the still-ongoing transition towards democracy.
The immediate root cause of the riot was an argument over a broken gold piece at a goldsmith's shop belonging to a Muslim man. After the owner had reportedly beaten up the Buddhist sellers, who were from a different town, the sellers cried for help. A crowd gathered, and the town erupted.
Propaganda spread both online and offline was swift and atrocious. Not only were false reports and fake images of dead bodies propagating, but also hateful anonymous comments towards Muslims poured in. Fake anti-Muslim (and some anti-Buddhist) accounts dedicated to spreading propaganda sprang up overnight. Several extremists inflamed the situation with racist content by linking the current flare-up back to last year's riot between the Rohingya and Rakhine. Pro-military accounts worsened the situation by calling Aung San Suu Kyi and the leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group irresponsible.
Curiously, riots coincidentally tend to occur in Myanmar during inbound and outbound trips of Myanmar leaders and important foreign guests. The infamous unrest in Rakhine State was sparked right before Aung San Suu Kyi's trip to Europe on June 13, 2012. The Latpadaung Copper Mine crackdown, on the other hand, took place ten days after Obama's historical visit to the country on November 19, 2012. The recent Meikhtila riot was triggered on March 20, 2013 - three days before Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt's visit to the country and a week after an investigation report on Copper Mine was released. This hinted conspiracy rather than ordinary coincidence.
Despite the claim towards extremism of Buddhists in Myanmar, the current violence is beginning to resemble the riots of 1988, and how they were being framed as anarchic. After the 1988 uprising, the military swooped in and took control of the country, readily stating that they had assumed power "in order to bring a timely halt to the deteriorating conditions on all sides all over the country". The seizing of power by the military showed that those struggling to survive under the hardship of life are easily influenced by the country's political elite. Although reforms are promising, the military still holds a fair share of political power, and the public is always wary of their potential return to power.
Buddhists and Muslims in Meikhtila have been coexisting peacefully for centuries. Some Meikhtila locals even claimed that the people most involved in the rioting weren't even from around their neighbourhood. Min Ko Naing, an 88 Generation Student Group leader who went to Meikhtila on the first day of violence, said that "there are outsiders inciting the situation".
Tension further escalated to a new level when rumours alleged that an old woman who had been portrayed as one of the gold sellers was beaten to death. In addition to questionable reports that another monk was burnt alive, the whole town became uncontrollable.
While noble monks and many netizens have urged people not to spread the hatred so as to reduce tension, the extremists are repeatedly promulgating falsified information and reporting fabricated news. Ten days before the violence broke out, a Facebook page that claimed themselves to be the "Myanmar National Movement Committee" made a post about Meikhtila calling on Buddhists to be careful because Muslims were distributing anti-Buddhist leaflets. According to Win Htein, an MP of Meikhtila from the National League for Democracy, the unknown groups from both sides had distributed the discriminative leaflets in the affected area.
Both during and after the riot, local Buddhists and Muslims worked together to restore stability. Muslim families under threat sought refuge in monasteries and Buddhist neighbours' houses. Police and members of the Young Buddhist Association escorted many of the Muslims to a makeshift camp at the local stadium. The All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and 88 Generation Student Group leaders and monks helped Muslim families move to safer shelters.
When a state of emergency was announced on March 22 and the military joined police forces for relief and rehabilitation, they were accused of taking advantage of the situation in order to garner sympathetic feelings for the military. Furthermore, the military was denounced for attempting to gain power under the shield of violence.
The government has formed an investigative committee to create a report on the violence within a week. However, seeing as the report for the Rohingya riot was not publicised up until recently, it is questionable that this report will be released any time soon.
Myanmar has only recently took its first few steps towards democracy. However, unless the government and civil society can hold accountable to whoever planned and incited the riot in Meikhtila, more deadly clashes are inevitable. If nothing is done and the situation spirals out of control, the resulting instability could see something few want: The reinstatement of military control in Myanmar.
Chan Myae Khine regularly curates and reports about Myanmar on Global Voices and is studying a post graduate degree in Law.
Follow her on Twitter: @mydaydream89
Burma communal violence spreads
Fighting that led to dozens of deaths in Meikhtila is repeated in nearby towns as security forces struggle to exert control
Associated Press in Meikhtila
guardian.co.uk, Monday 25 March 2013 05.25 GMT
A UN envoy has called for calm after visiting the Burmese city of Meikhtila, the seat of a bloody wave of fighting between Buddhists and Muslims that spread over the weekend into neighbouring communities.
Burma's president, Thein Sein, has declared a state of emergency in the region and deployed army troops to Meikhtila. But even as soldiers were able to impose order there after several days of anarchy that saw armed Buddhists torch the city's Muslim quarters, unrest was reported in two other towns to the south.
State television said mobs had burned down a mosque and 50 homes on Saturday in Yamethin, about 40 miles (64km) from Meikhtila, while another mosque and several buildings were set ablaze in Lewei, further south near the capital, Naypyitaw. The clashes have killed dozens of people and displaced 10,000.
The government has put the total death toll at 32 and authorities say they have detained at least 35 people allegedly involved in arson and violence in the region.
On Sunday Vijay Nambiar, the UN secretary general's special adviser on Burma, toured Meikhtila and visited some of the displaced. He called on the government to punish those responsible.
Myanma Ahlin, a state-run newspaper, carried a statement from Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindu leaders expressing sorrow for the loss of life and property and calling on Buddhist monks to help ease tensions. "We would like to call upon the government to provide sufficient security and to protect the displaced people and to investigate and take legal measures as urgently as possible," the statement from the Interfaith Friendship Organisation said.
The rioting began on Wednesday after a deadly argument between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers in Meikhtila. Once news spread that a Muslim man had killed a Buddhist monk, Buddhist mobs rampaged through a Muslim neighbourhood and the situation quickly spiralled out of control.
The spread of violence is posing a major challenge to stability as Thein Sein's administration, led by retired military officers, struggles to reform the country after half a century of army rule nominally ended two years ago.
There were two similar episodes in western Rakhine state last year, pitting ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims who are widely denigrated as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and are denied passports as a result. The Muslim population of central Burma, by contrast, is mostly of Indian origin and does not face the same questions over nationality.
In Meikthila at least five mosques were set ablaze from Wednesday to Friday. The majority of homes and shops burned in the city also belonged to Muslims and most of the displaced are Muslim. Dozens of corpses were piled in the streets, some of them charred beyond recognition.
Residents and activists said the police did little to stop the rioters or reacted too slowly, allowing the violence to escalate.
Myanmar refugees killed in fire at Thai camp
Officials report at least 42 refugees killed and dozens more wounded by raging fire at crowded camp in north Thailand.
Last Modified: 23 Mar 2013 07:41
At least 42 Myanmar refugees have died in a raging fire at a camp in Thailand, officials have said.
Naramol Palawat, governor of Mae Hong Son, said hundreds of temporary thatch huts at the Ban Mae Surin refugee camp were reduced to ashes. She said the blaze was believed to have been started by a cooking accident.
Dozens of other people were injured in the fire with women, children and the elderly believed to make up the majority of the victims.
"The latest death toll we can confirm through military walkie-talkies is 42," Palawat said, adding the toll was likely to rise further as rescue workers search the area.
A local district official said hot weather, combined with strong winds caused the fire to spread quickly among the thatched bamboo shelters.
Police on Saturday said around 400 temporary homes had been incinerated, while the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Bureau said a school, clinic and two food warehouses had also been destroyed.
The Thai government pledged an investigation into the fire at the camp, which houses roughly 3,700 refugees.
Ten camps strung out along the Thai-Myanmar border house a total of about 130,000 people, who first began arriving in the 1980s.
Many of the refugees have fled conflict zones in ethnic areas of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
The density of the housing and lack of firefighting equipment mean large numbers of shelters are often destroyed,
but Friday's death toll was unusually high.
Mae Hong Son is about 925km north of Bangkok.
Calm returns to Myanmar violence-hit city
Army regains control of central city of Meikhtila where clashes between Muslims and Buddhists have left dozens dead.
Last Modified: 23 Mar 2013 12:22
Myanmar's army has regained control of a central city where several days of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims left dozens of people dead and scores of buildings in flames.
Truckloads of soldiers could be seen on Saturday patrolling Meikhtila and taking up positions at intersections and banks.
"Calm has been restored after troops have taken charge of security," said Win Htein, an opposition legislator from Meikhtila.
"So far, nearly 6,000 Muslim people have been relocated at a stadium and a police station for their safety."
Some residents, who had cowered in their homes for days since the mayhem began on Wednesday, started venturing out on the streets to take in the destruction.
The violence is the worst sectarian bloodshed to hit the Southeast Asian nation this year.
Thein Sein, Myanmar's president, imposed a state of emergency in the region on Friday in a bid to stop the unrest from spreading.
The violence, the first of its kind reported in Myanmar since a wave of bloodshed shook western Rakhine state twice last year, underscored the government's failure to rein in anti-Muslim sentiment in the predominantly Buddhist country.
It was not immediately clear which side bore the brunt of the latest unrest, but terrified Muslims, who make about 30 percent of Meikhtila's 100,000 inhabitants, stayed off the streets on Friday.
Many had their shops and homes burned and some angry Buddhist residents and monks tried to stop firefighters from dousing the blazes.
Riot police crisscrossed town seizing machetes and hammers from enraged Buddhist mobs.
At least five mosques were torched and thousands of terrified Muslims have fled their homes, escorted to safety by police to two make-shift camps. Some Buddhists, meanwhile, have sought shelter at local monasteries.
Little appeared to be left of some palm tree-lined neighborhoods, where whole plots were reduced to smouldering masses of twisted debris and ash.
Broken glass, destroyed motorcycles and overturned tables littered roads beside rows of burnt-out homes and shops, evidence of the widespread chaos of the last two days.
Residents described gruesome scenes. Local businessman San Hlaing said he counted 28 bodies this week and had seen blackened corpses burning in piles.
The government's struggle to contain the violence is proving another major challenge to Sein's reformist administration as it attempts to chart a path to democracy after nearly half a century of military rule that once crushed all dissent.
Thein Sein took office two years ago this month, and despite ushering in an era of reform, he has faced violence in Rakhine state and an upsurge in fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels in the north.
The government has also had to deal with major protests at a northern copper mine where angry residents - emboldened by promises of freedom of expression - have come out to denounce land grabbing.
Deadly clashes in Burma between Buddhists and Muslims
State of emergency declared in Meikhtila, where mosques and houses were burned in revival of sectarian hostilities
Associated Press in Burma
guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 March 2013 10.25 GMT
Burma's president has declared a state of emergency after two days of sectarian violence in a central town that has killed at least 20 people.
The the town of Meikhtila remains tense and dangerous and residents are too scared to walk the streets, said Win Htein, a politician from the opposition National League for Democracy.
Fires set to Muslim homes continued to burn as angry Buddhist residents and monks prevented authorities from putting out the blazes, he said.
At least five mosques were set on fire during the violence that started on Wednesday, reportedly triggered by an argument between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers.
A Buddhist monk was among the first killed, inflaming tensions that led a Buddhist mob to rampage through a Muslim neighbourhood.
Meikhtila is about 340 miles (550km) north of the main city of Rangoon with a population of about 100,000 people, of whom about a third are Muslims, according to Win.
He said that before this week's violence the community had 17 mosques.
It was difficult to determine the extent of destruction in the town because residents were too afraid to walk the streets and were sheltering in monasteries or other locations away from the violence.
"We don't feel safe and we have now moved inside a monastery," said Sein Shwe, a shop owner. "The situation is unpredictable and dangerous."
Occasional isolated violence involving Burma's majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities has occurred for decades.
The violence in Meikhtila was the latest sectarian unrest after clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya last year in western Rakhine state left more than 200 people dead and 100,000 homeless.
It is also the latest challenge for the government as it tries to keep peace in the country and navigate the transition from military rule to democracy.
Rohingya refugees import 'mail-order' brides
Young men who have found refuge in Malaysia after fleeing violence in Myanmar are covertly getting brides from home.
Maher Sattar Last Modified: 17 Mar 2013 08:25
Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh - Shamsul Alam, has dabbled as a tailor's assistant and construction worker since fleeing to Malaysia from his native Rakhine State in Myanmar.
He recalls bitterly his gruelling 12-14 hour work days on construction sites before grabbing a quick meal and dashing off to the highlands in the hopes of evading the authorities.
But when he speaks about his intentions to marry, the 30-some year old Rohingya becomes much more poetic: "If a man wants to live, he must have a woman…People need companions to live on this earth."
However, his dream to marry has been difficult. As young Rohingya men like Alam have settled into life in Malaysia, to which a steady trickle of Rohingya refugees has been fleeing, they've been presented with a unique twist on a common dilemma: where to find a suitable bride.
Their perceived low social status has made it particularly difficult to secure brides.
"There's a big gap socially between a Rohingya man and a Malay woman," says Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy organisation for the Rohingya community. "The father of a Malay woman would not want to give his daughter to a stateless groom."
As a result, the demand for brides is creating a new phenomenon: the Rohingya version of the mail-order bride.
Sending back for a bride
The stateless Rohingya, described by the UN Refugee Agency as the most persecuted minority in the world, face restrictions in their native Myanmar on where they can travel, who they can marry, and how many children they can have.
Of the 30,000 refugees who have fled ethnic violence in their home state for Malaysia, the majority of those braving the treacherous boat journey have been young, single men.
"In the past many Rohingya men in Malaysia married undocumented Indonesian or Burmese Muslim women," Lewa says. "But from 2009 it became more common to send a Rohingya bride from their village by air."
Activists and refuges estimate that hundreds of Rohingya brides have been sent over since 2009, with 67 making the trip last year.
"In our camp there has been many men who went over [to Malaysia] who have since been in touch to say ‘hey, send me a woman to marry'," says Deen Mohammed, a refugee living in Leda camp in Cox's Bazaar in southeast Bangladesh.
So-called brokers and family members back in Myanmar and the refugee camps in Bangladesh look out for potential female mates. Once the right woman is found, several deals are struck.
The suitor - or often his parents - then come to an agreement with the bride-to-be's parents, which can involve monthly payments or a lump-sum figure. The girl herself is rarely consulted.
Arrangements must then be made with the brokers - who then arrange the fake passports, tickets, and other documentation for the girl and her companion who often pose as her husband to get her through the scrutiny of immigration officials.
From sea to the sky
One factor spurring the growth of the number of brides being flown over is the change in Thailand's attitude towards refugee boats.
Having previously turned a blind eye, In 2009, Thailand - a key passage for onward travel to Malaysia - began to push refugee boats back to sea, leaving their passengers vulnerable to risks of dehydration and death. This shift coincided with a boom in low-cost air travel in Asia, with airlines like AirAsia adding hundreds of routes in 2008.
Parents unwilling to risk their daughter's lives by sending them on a small boat seem to be more receptive to the notion of dispatching them by air, opening the door for lonely men like Alam to spend his savings on a bride, a broker, and their plane tickets.
Somewhat ironically, the cost of bringing a bride to Malaysia by boat is now more expensive than by air, according to Deen Mohammed.
"For the boat, the brokers charge more for the women than they do for the men, about $2,280", he says. "The plane ticket costs about $1,500, getting a fake passport and other documents costs about $250."
He explained, however, that many refugees don't have the luxury of choice.
"Many of the refugees aren't able to make the arrangements to go by plane…Not everyone is able to get a passport and other documents."
Syed Karim, a refugee in Bangladesh who is preparing to send his daughter by boat to get married in Malaysia, is realistic about the situation.
"I just know that I'm supposed send the money I get [from the groom] to a specific place, and then someone will come take her. I don't know who he is, but I know his name," Karim says.
"Of course I'm scared about what might happen to her. She's a single girl by herself, she's 21 years old. She's worried about how she is going to reach her fiancé."
Such trips can end in tragedy. Just a few days earlier, two Rohingya brides en route to Malaysia by boat from Cox's Bazaar drowned in choppy waters, Mohammed says.
But uncertainty is a hallmark not just of the travel, but also of the life after it.
Mohammed recounted the story of a girl who went to marry a man in Malaysia who it turned out already had a wife and two children. The marriage was called off and the girl was stranded.
"For a month her parents heard nothing from her at all, had no idea how she was surviving, until finally she was able to call them to let them know that she had managed to find another husband."
Lewa also voices fears about the future of the girls, many of whom she says are underage.
"The women are there at the mercy of their husband. It's hard to talk to them - the husband is afraid to allow her out because he is afraid she could be arrested.
"NGOs have raised concerns about high levels of domestic violence in the Rohingya community. At least in a village in Burma you have relatives or village elders to turn to," Lewa says. "Stateless young brides in an alien country are particularly vulnerable to abuses by state authorities and locals, but also by their own refugee community."
Follow Maher Sattar on Twitter: @MaherSattar
Rapes by Burmese security forces 'may cause more strife' in troubled region
Teenage victim describes how at least 13 women were raped overnight in Arakan state, which has been focus of ethnic riots
Francis Wade in Bangkok
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 26 February 2013 12.57 GMT
At least 13 women, including teenagers, have been subjected to prolonged rape by Burmese security forces in a remote village in the western state of Arakan. Human rights groups have warned that the incident threatens to trigger further violence in a region where several waves of ethno-religious rioting since June last year have killed more than 1,000 people.
The women all belong to the Muslim Rohingya minority, which has borne the brunt of fighting between Muslim and Buddhist communities. One victim, an 18-year-old girl who cannot be named for security reasons, described how a group of uniformed soldiers from Burma's border security unit, known locally as NaSaKa, entered her house in northern Maungdaw township shortly after midnight on 20 February.
"They took us separately to different places and tortured and raped us," she said, referring also to her mother and younger sister, 15. The ordeal lasted until dawn, she said. "They came in and out of the house at least 15 times. They also beat my mother with a gun and dragged her outside to the road and beat her to the ground."
According to the victim, 13 people in the village were assaulted. Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, which has monitoring teams in Maungdaw township, said she had separately confirmed that at least 11 people were raped that night.
The incident comes eight months after the rape of a 26-year-old Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men triggered fierce rioting across Arakan state , and a state of emergency remains in place. Arakanese and Rohingya communities have clashed a number of times. Animosity toward the Muslim group is widespread among Arakanese, many of whom consider them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
"Sexual violence by Nasaka against Rohingya women has been documented for many years," says Matthew Smith, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, adding that prosecutions are rare for rapes committed by security forces.
Khin Ohmar, founder of the Women's League of Burma, said that such ordeals terrorise the community. "I've heard of cases where rape survivors are kicked out of their village because the village head is so scared of retribution if they complain to the Burma army."
She said that incidents like these happen "every time the army moves into remote areas", and that punishment is normally just transferral to another area "where rape continues but with different women". She thinks that the 20 February incident probably had its roots in "ethno-centric chauvinism and hatred" of the Rohingya.
Following the attacks, villagers fled into nearby forests and across the border into Bangladesh, said Lewa. The victim told the Guardian that she and the other women had received treatment at a local clinic. The extent of their injuries is unclear, although one 19-year-old woman is believed to be in a critical condition.
The protracted violence in Arakan state has left deep scars for communities on both sides. The UN estimates the number of people displaced since June to be around 120,000, the majority Rohingya.
There are fears however that the violence, which initially pitted Rohingya against Arakanese, is increasingly being demarcated along religious lines. Rioting broke out in Rangoon this week after a row over what local Buddhists claimed was the illegal construction of a mosque. The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma news organisation also reported last week that the government had placed a ban on all Muslims leaving the Arakanese town of Thandwe, although no official statement has been made.
Buddhist and Muslim communities in Arakan state have now been segregated. In the state capital of Sittwe, all but one Muslim district was razed and emptied last year; the last remaining quarter, Aung Mingalar, whose population swelled from 5,000 to 8,000 residents after fighting broke out, is now guarded by soldiers.
Following a visit to several camps for the displaced this month, UN envoy Tomas Quintana spoke of his concern about aid distribution and freedom of movement. Despite government assurances that displaced Rohingya could eventually return to their homes, Quintana said that stakeholders in Arakan state believed "the current settlements will become permanent".
The medical charity Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) has warned that its staff have received threats from local Arakanese when attempting to get aid to the Rohingya. "It's just awful intimidation and threats of violence from a small but vocal group, through phone calls and on social media," said Peter Paul de Groote, Head of Mission for MSF in Burma.
"Formal permission for access is not the main problem. A big obstacle for MSF is not having enough staff – doctors and other essential personnel are scared to work in Rakhine [Arakan] state." He added that with monsoon season approaching, "we can expect a real humanitarian problem".
97 Burmese asylum seekers die after 25 days stranded at sea
According to the 32 survivors, Thailand's navy intercepted their passage and forcibly removed their boat's engine
Associated Press in Colombo
guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 February 2013 18.32 GMT
Burmese asylum seekers rescued by Sri Lanka's navy last week said they floated at sea for 25 days and 97 people died of starvation after Thailand's navy intercepted them and forcibly removed their boat's engine. The Thai navy has denied the allegation.
Thirty-two men and a boy now held at an immigration detention centre near Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, were rescued last Saturday when their dilapidated wooden vessel began sinking while making a perilous journey to Malaysia.
All are Rohingya Muslims who face heavy discrimination in Burma, and say they do not want to return there.
The survivors were suffering from serious dehydration when they were rescued about 250 miles off Sri Lanka's east coast. The Sri Lankan navy said it was alerted to the sinking vessel by a fisherman.
"The journey was dangerous, but we had to do that ... as we fear for our lives, no jobs, and big fighting [in Burma]," one of the survivors, Shofiulla, said.
Sectarian violence in western Burma has killed hundreds of people and displaced 100,000 more since last June. The Rohingya speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Bangladeshis, with darker skin than most people in Burma, which is mostly Buddhist. They are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The United Nations estimates the Rohingya population in Burma at 800,000, but the Burmese government does not recognise them as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups. Most are denied citizenship and have no passports, though many of their families have lived in the country for generations. Bangladesh also refuses to accept them as citizens.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concern on Friday over the rising number of deaths of Rohingya at sea and urged Burma's government to promote reconciliation in conflict-hit Rakhine state and ensure them basic living conditions and eventual access to citizenship.
While commending the Sri Lankan navy's quick response, UNHCR also said there were continuing reports of some countries in the region putting boat people back to sea. It asked countries to "keep their borders open to people in need of international protection ... (and) offer them temporary assistance and protection until durable solutions can be found."
Shofiulla, 24, said 130 people were on the boat when the journey to Malaysia began on 10 January. They had paid $465 each.
After 10 days' travel, he said the boat reached the Thai border and two boats from the Thai navy intercepted them. Shofiulla said the navy personnel took their engine.
"Then we (had) no food, no rations ... no water. We drank only sea water," he said, adding that the bodies of the 97 who died over the next 25 days were put into the sea.
Colonel Thanathip Sawangsaeng, a Thailand Defence Ministry spokesman, denied the allegations.
"This is absolutely not true. The Thai navy officers would not have done that," he said, adding that similar accusations have been made in the past, including claims that the Thai navy had abused refugees. "The Royal Thai Navy commander has previously made it clear that the Thai officers have treated the boat people according to humanitarian principles.
"There are two approaches in handling the Rohingya: giving them food and help before letting them carry on their sea journey or prosecute them for illegal entry. However, it's not possible that the Thai navy would have done what they were alleged of doing."
The Thai army said last month that it had suspended two senior officers pending an investigation into their alleged involvement in trafficking Rohingya people from Burma to other countries.
Shofiulla said he is a second-year student studying microbiology, but that his university was closed last July after the violence erupted. "We can't go back to our country ... our government kills Muslims ... we are afraid to go back. We want to go to a safe place," said Shofiulla, who appeared to be the only English-speaking person in the group.
He said they wanted to go to Malaysia to find jobs, following in the footsteps of others from his village. He said 25 people were now in the detention centre while eight others were still hospitalised.
Sri Lankan immigration and emigration controller Chulananda Perera said his department had informed Burma's embassy in Colombo and was seeking its cooperation in identifying the survivors to begin the process of sending them back, but has not received a response.
There was no immediate comment from the embassy.
Thailand refuses to take in Rohingya refugees
Refugees turned away despite UN request to South East Asian countries to host them.
Last Modified: 02 Jan 2013 09:43
The UN refugee agency is urging the governments of South East Asia to take in Rohingya refugees.
A group of people, who say they are from Myanmar, were found in a boat off the coast of Thailand.
But they have been turned away.
In the last year, about 13,000 people are thought to have left the Bay of Bengal in search of a better life
Al Jazeera's Caroline Malone reports.