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Fresh clashes break out between Myanmar's Buddhists, Muslims

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YANGON, Myanmar -- At least three people were killed and hundreds of houses burned in a fresh wave of violence pitting Buddhists against Muslims in western Myanmar, news agencies reported Tuesday.

The latest clashes started late Sunday night in villages in Rakhine state's Min Bya township and spread north to another neighboring remote community accessible only on foot, the Associated Press reported, quoting state Atty. Gen. Hla Thein.

Officials said the riots killed one ethnic Rakhine Buddhist man and two Muslim women and destroyed more than 340 homes in related arson attacks that spilled over into Monday. Authorities imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew after the violence, with calm reportedly restored by Tuesday. The term Rakhine is shared by both the state and the ethnic group.

Although the state, among the nation’s poorest, has been the site of fighting between these two groups for decades, the issue hit the international spotlight in June when a state of emergency was declared after clashes killed hundreds of people and saw thousands of houses burned and several mosques and monasteries destroyed. The June violence followed reports, aired in the state media, that three Muslim men allegedly raped and murdered a Buddhist woman in late May. In response, a mob killed 10 Muslims, setting off a wave of violence.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, set up a commission to investigate the violence between Buddhists, who are the majority in Rakhine state, and Muslims, many of whom are known as Rohingya. Authorities, who view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, had earlier rejected an inquiry that would be led by the United Nations.

On Tuesday, Muslim youth groups called off a planned march in Yangon to protest ill treatment of Muslims and Rohingya, reportedly to avoid fanning social tensions.

Abu Tahay, a Rohingya with the National Democratic Party for Development, who ran for elected office in 1990 but was disqualified by the then-military-led government, said Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations, citing historical records.

The Muslim-Buddhist tension is the result of decades of divide-and-conquer tactics by Myanmar’s military rulers, he said. Similar tactics by the country’s British colonial rulers before them also fueled distrust between communities.

“This is not part of the problem, it’s the root of the problem,” he said. “The issue is racism.”

Maung Thura, an entertainer better known as Zarganar, who is one of 27 members of the commission investigating the recent violence, said the question of Rohingya identity is legitimate.

“It’s a newborn race. What are their origins?” he said. “They’ve created a lot of trouble for the Burmese people, so we cannot accept them.”

In mid-October, Buddhist monks staged a large protest in Mandalay against a planned Organization of Islamic Cooperation liaison office that the humanitarian group said would help all people in Myanmar, including the Rohingya. But many Burmese believe it’s seeking to meddle in the country’s internal affairs.

The Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims compete for scarce resources and land, some observers noted.

“These are two groups that have experienced a fair amount of persecution from the Myanmar government,” said Matt F. Smith, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, a civic group. “The conflict is both ethnic and religious. There’s a strong anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the country.”

Others argued that it’s a border and migration problem, in a region where China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Thailand host residents from each other’s ethnic communities.

“It’s a learning experience for Burmese to realize border issues are real,” said Tin May Then, executive director of Asia21 MJ Co., a Yangon-based consulting group. “People need to realize every country has these issues; just look at Mexico and the U.S. No one thought about the border here before because the country was so closed off.”