Reuters Yangon, Yangon Region, Myanmar (Burma)
Oct 10, 2017, 10.56 AM
Myanmar launched on Tuesday its first bid to improve relations between followers of different religions since an eruption of deadly violence in August inflamed communal tension and triggered an exodus of some 520,000 Muslims to Bangladesh.
Rohingya Muslims are still fleeing, more than six weeks after Rohingya insurgents attacked security forces in western Myanmar's Rakhine State.
The United Nations has denounced a ferocious military crackdown in response to the attacks as ethnic cleansing aimed at driving out Rohingya.
A new surge of refugees has entered Bangladesh in recent days, including about 11,000 on Monday. Some have told of increasing hunger in Rakhine State as well as of more mob attacks on Muslim villagers.
Despite growing international condemnation of the refugee crisis, the military campaign is popular in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where there is little sympathy for the Rohingya, and for Muslims in general, and where Buddhist nationalism has surged in recent years.
The party of government leader Aung San Suu Kyi took the first step towards trying to calm communal animosity with inter-faith prayers at a stadium in the biggest city of Yangon, with Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians.
"This is for peace and stability," party spokesman Aung Shin told Reuters. "Peace in Rakhine and peace nationwide."
Traffic was jammed around the stadium as Buddhist monks had nuns packed the stands inside, along with thousands of others.
The Rohingya had pinned hopes for change on Suu Kyi's party but it has been wary of Buddhist nationalist pressure. Her party did not field a single Muslim candidate in the 2015 election that it swept.
Rohingya are not classified as an indigenous minority in Myanmar and so are denied citizenship under a law that links nationality to ethnicity.
Regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, they face restrictions and discrimination and are derided by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine State, and by much of the wider population.
The militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) who launched the Aug. 25 attacks that triggered the latest spasm of violence are demanding full citizenship rights and recognition as an indigenous community.
A one-month ceasefire the insurgents called in September in order, they said, to ease aid deliveries to Rakhine State, expired at midnight on Monday, but authorities said there was no sign of any new attacks.
The government rebuffed the ceasefire, saying it did not negotiate with terrorists.
Myanmar denies ethnic cleansing. It says more than 500 people have been killed in the violence since late August, most of them ARSA "terrorists".
Even before the government offensive, the small, lightly armed ARSA appeared only capable of hit-and-run raids and unable to mount any sort of sustained challenge to the army.
The insurgents said on Saturday they were ready to respond to any peace move by the government, even though their ceasefire was ending.
The reports of food shortages in Rakhine will add to the urgency of calls by aid agencies and the international community for unfettered humanitarian access to the conflict zone.
Villagers said the food was running out because rice crops were not ready for harvest and authorities had shut village markets and limited food transport, apparently to cut supplies to the militants.
The government has cited worry about food as one of the reasons people have cited for leaving, but a senior state government official on Monday dismissed any suggestion of starvation.
Among those fleeing were more than 30 people on a fishing boat that capsized off the Bangladesh coast on Sunday evening. Twenty-five of them drowned, including 13 children, police said.