An uneasy calm prevails in Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State, following weeks of communal violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
"We’re still shocked. We worry whether such unrest could happen again,” Myat Hla, 46, told IRIN, sitting on the concrete floor of Sutaung Pyae monastery outside the city, where close to 2,000 displaced Rakhine residents are living.
She and other Buddhist residents in her village allege they were attacked by Muslim Rohingyas, who destroyed their homes. Now they wonder when or if they will be able to go back again. “How can we feel safe and secure? Should we [Buddhists] and they [Muslims] be forced to live together like before?" asked 64-year-old Tun Thein.
The recent bloody unrest is viewed as a major test for the reform-minded government of Burmese President Thein Sein, who declared a state of emergency in the area on 10 June. A wave of violence erupted on 8 June following the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in late May, allegedly by three Muslim Rohingya men.
On 3 June an attack on a bus left 10 Muslims dead, and in the ensuing revenge attacks thousands of homes were burned and dozens killed.
According to government figures, more than 52,000 people have been displaced and are now living at 66 temporary relief sites in six townships, while unofficial estimates put the real number of those who have been affected at closer to 90,000.
Many people could remain displaced for three months or longer, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported on 22 June. The government says more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed, and most of the displaced people are now being housed in schools and religious buildings.
The plight of the Rohingya - an ethnic and linguistic Muslim minority numbering about 800,000 in Rakhine - is again in the international spotlight. They have long faced persecution in Myanmar, and in they eyes of Burmese law the Rohingyas are stateless.
Human rights groups note that they regularly experience discrimination. Permits are required for everything from renovating their homes to marriage and travel. Even within Rakhine, Rohingya must apply for permission when travelling from one city to another, while access to health and education is limited. Reports of forced labour are common.
Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they live in squalor and are viewed as illegal migrants, or elsewhere in the region, including Malaysia and Thailand.
"We don’t know when peace will come and our lives will return to normal,” a Rohingya chemist in his thirties, who asked not to be identified, told IRIN by phone. “My mother is sick and my sister is pregnant. I’m so worried for them,” said the man, who claims they were forced to flee Sittwe to escape angry Buddhist residents.
Since the violence erupted, most Rohingya villages in Rakhine State have been cordoned off and monitored by riot police to prevent further clashes.
"The authorities have forced us to move out of Sittwe to those villages in the countryside where our people [Rohingya] live," said one Rohingya woman from Sittwe. “We actually don’t want to, but how can we refuse?”
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said government offices, banks, and most shops and markets in the Sittwe area had reopened, and the public ferry service between Sittwe and Maungdaw, on the Naf River, resumed on 18 June. However, many residents say the situation remains tense, particularly in those areas with larger Rohingya populations.
There have long been tensions between the two communities, but local politicians say this latest upsurge in violence could make things worse. “Now, both sides hate each other more than before. They don’t feel safe to live together as before,” said Hla Saw of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP).
Although many of the displaced are being assisted, there is growing concern about their health. “Four out of 10 suffer diarrhoea due to unclean sanitation,” said a doctor at a makeshift clinic, who noted that she is treating many patients for colds, coughs, and flu because it is the rainy season and the displaced people are sleeping on a concrete floor. “Proper shelter should be arranged for all of them urgently,” she said. “If they keep living in such conditions, their health will worsen.”
The Myanmar government, which has been providing assistance including food, shelter, non-food items and medical supplies to displaced people, has requested the United Nations and its humanitarian partners to support their efforts.
In response, the World Food Programme (WFP), which estimates that some 90,000 people are in need of assistance, is finalizing plans for a three-month food distribution operation that will require additional support from donors.