International pressure is mounting for an end to sectarian violence in western Myanmar. Rakhine state is under emergency rule and the UN has evacuated foreign workers from the area.
As security forces struggled to contain the deadly violence that has broken out between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state, residents fled their burning homes on Tuesday.
Police fired live rounds into the air to disperse a group of Muslim Rohingyas who were seen burning homes.
The latest surge of sectarian violence was triggered by the alleged rape and murder last month of a Buddhist girl by three Muslims. On June 3, 10 Muslims were lynched in apparent retaliation and violence exploded across the region.
The New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch has warned that the violence is getting "out of control" and called for international observers to be deployed in Rakhine.
"The government needs to be protecting threatened communities, but without any international presence there, there's a real fear that won't happen," said HRW deputy director Elaine Pearson.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called on "all parties to exercise restraint."
"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 in Burma," she said.
'Most persecuted community'
Rakhine is a predominantly Buddhist state bordering Bangladesh. It is also home to a large number of Muslims who make up around 4 percent of Myanmar's population of roughly 60 million. They are mainly of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent.
The Rohingyas, whom the UN describes as one of the world's most persecuted communities, are not considered by the state to be citizens of Myanmar but instead are viewed as illegal migrants. In 1982, the junta introduced a citizenship law that acknowledged 135 ethnic minorities, but not the Rohingyas.
According to rights groups, they are allowed to leave their homes only under particular conditions, have limited access to education and are subject to marriage restrictions. For decades, they have had their property confiscated, have been arrested and held without trial, tortured and, in the worst of cases, murdered.
Some 800,000 live in Rakhine state, according to the UN refugee agency. Every year, thousands try to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, to India, Pakistan, Thailand or Malaysia.
On Monday, 300 Rohingyas were turned back by the Bangladeshi authorities.
International human rights organizations have tried again and again to draw attention to their plight, but there is little support from within the country.
Rohingyas belong to the most persecuted group of people in the world
'A litmus test'
"It is an extremely sensitive area," Ulrich Delius from the German NGO, Society for Threatened Peoples, told Deutsche Welle. "It won't help any politician to promote the cause of the Rohingya. That's why most hold back. They resort to populism: 'Our common enemies are the Rohingyas,' they say. They are Bengali migrants is what people always say."
He said there had been no improvement with the political transformation that has been taking place in Myanmar.
Delius pointed out that the way the government reacted to the latest unrest would be a "litmus test" and would indicate how ready the regime in Naypyidaw actually is to "really make concessions."
This time the government could not resort to military repression as in the past, he said.
When President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the area on Sunday his choice of words corresponded to those of the old military regime. However, the fact that he even mentioned the unrest was new.
"If this endless anarchic vengeance and these deadly acts continue, there is the danger of them spreading to other parts and being overwhelmed by subversive influences," he said. "If that happens, it can severely affect peace and tranquillity and our nascent democratic reforms and the development of the country," the president said.
Author: Rodion Ebbighausen / act (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Gregg Benzow