Seven ethnic Rakhine killed as Myanmar Police fire on rioters

The seven victims were ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. The Rakhine, many of whom are poor and marginalised, have a long-standing enmity with the Myanmar state which is dominated by ethnic Bamar. Photograph:( Reuters )

AFP Yangon, Yangon Region, Myanmar (Burma) Jan 17, 2018, 10.28 AM (IST)

Seven ethnic Rakhine Buddhists died after Myanmar police opened fire on a crowd trying to seize a government office, officials said Wednesday, in fresh violence in a febrile state already scarred by ethnic and religious hatred.

The incident unfurled as around 5,000 Buddhists gathered late Tuesday for a nationalist ceremony in Mrauk U, a town that has so far remained unscathed by the military's crackdown on the region's minority Rohingya Muslim community.

It was not immediately clear why the rally descended into violence. 

But ethnic Rakhine, many of whom are poor and marginalised, have a long-standing enmity with the Myanmar state which is dominated by ethnic Bamar.

Also read: Who are Myanmar's Rakhine? 

The clashes came on the same day that a repatriation agreement was signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh to start the return of some 655,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from squalid camps over the border.

Rakhine say the Rohingya are illegal "Bengali" immigrants to a Buddhist land.

A police spokesman blamed the crowd for "starting the violence" by throwing stones and barging into a district administrative office and hoisting the Rakhine State flag.

"Security forces asked them to disperse and fired warning shots with rubber bullets... but they didn't stop, so police had to use real bullets," spokesman Colonel Myo Soe told AFP.

"Seven people were killed and 13 injured," he said adding more than 20 police were wounded by the crowd, who were calling for the "sovereignty of Rakhine state".

Photographs showed bodies laid out on the floor of a makeshift mortuary in Mrauk U on Wednesday, the clothes of the victims stained with blood. 

The shootings further raise the temperature in an already combustible area of Myanmar.

"It's not forgivable that they used guns," Mrauk U lawmaker Oo Hla Saw of the Arakan National Party said, confirming the death toll and labelling the police action "a crime".

Witness Nyi Nyi Khant, 29, said the clashes could have been prevented if the police had intervened earlier.

"The police had time to prepare to stop the crowd before they reached the office," he told AFP. "They could have blocked the street but they did not do that."

Communal hatreds
Mrauk U, home to an ancient Buddhist complex of the last Rakhine kingdom, lies a few dozen kilometres from the epicentre of violence that saw Rohingya driven in their hundreds of thousands into Bangladesh since last August.

The military led a brutal crackdown against the Rohingya after militant attacks against border posts killed around a dozen police.

Rohingya say security forces, backed by hardline Rakhine mobs, torched hundreds of Rohingya villages and forced them to flee.

Refugees arriving in Bangladesh have brought with them consistent testimony of murder, rape and arson in the violence justified by the army as a legitimate response to the militant attacks.

Already shredded by communal hatreds, Rakhine state also has a Buddhist rebel group called the Arakan Army which is fighting Myanmar's army.

The clashes garner little attention in a state dominated by violence against the Rohingya and in a country where several larger ethnic insurgencies are burning.

Observers warned Tuesday's violence could open a new chapter of unrest in the febrile state.

The United Nations said it "deplored" the loss of life and urged an investigation into "any disproportionate use of force".