With sectarian tension on the boil in Myanmar's Rakhine state, analysts and diplomats are worried about the spreading violence as well as a heavy- handed crackdown.
On Monday, security forces sought to restore order after a weekend of violence in which Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims set upon each other, torching houses in towns and entire hamlets.
At least seven people have died and 500 homes destroyed since the violence erupted last Friday in the town of Maungdaw and spread quickly to the state capital Sittwe.
On Monday, plumes of black smoke still rose over parts of Sittwe, while Buddhists were seen wielding makeshift weapons such as bamboo stakes, said Reuters.
In a village near Sittwe, an unidentified ethnic Rakhine told Reuters: “We are burning Rohingya houses because they live near our village and they gather at night and try to attack us.”
Muslims were seen setting alight houses as well.
Police retrieved four corpses, including one believed to be that of an ethnic Rakhine woman, reported the Associated Press. The other bodies were wrapped in blankets, and it was not clear who they were.
Signaling the gravity of the situation, President Thein Sein on Sunday night delivered a grim warning that the sectarian violence threatened the country's transition to democracy – a process begun with sweeping reforms under his presidency, after decades of repressive military rule.
“If we put racial and religious issues at the forefront, if we put the never-ending hatred, desire for revenge and anarchic actions at the forefront, and if we continue to retaliate and terrorize and kill each other,” there was a danger the troubles could multiply and move beyond Rakhine, he said in a televised address.
If this happened, 'the country's stability and peace, democratization process and development could be severely affected and much would be lost'.
The government imposed a state of emergency in areas of Rakhine state on Sunday. The order banned congregations of more than five people, including specifically in mosques. A night curfew was also in force.
Troops had been “ordered... to protect the airport and the Rakhine villages under attack in Sittwe”, Zaw Htay, director of the President's Office, was quoted as saying by Reuters.
The United Nations yesterday pulled out staff and their families from its offices in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Sittwe, and asked for government help to transport them to Yangon.
The cycle of violence followed the recent rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Muslim men. In retaliation, an angry Buddhist mob beat 10 Muslims to death on June 3.
But Rakhine has always been a potential tinderbox because of the majority Buddhists' resentment towards the minority Muslim population, comprising both ethnic Rakhine and the Rohingya, seen as immigrants.
At the same time, resentment has also built up in the Rohingya community after years of discrimination and harsh treatment. They are seen as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and denied citizenship.
However, Bangladesh does not see them as Bangladeshis. Some 800,000 of the effectively stateless Rohingya live in Rakhine, another 200,000 in Bangladesh – including some 30,000 in squalid camps – and there are a further one million scattered around the world.
The Rohingya's plight caught international attention in 2010 when five boatloads of migrants fleeing Myanmar were detained by the Thai authorities and allegedly set adrift at sea with little food and water. Hundreds were believed to have drowned.
This time, to escape the violence in Rakhine, some 300 Rohingya, mainly women and children, tried to flee to Bangladesh in eight boats. But Bangladeshi border guards on Monday turned them back after giving them food and water.
A Yangon-based diplomat, who asked not to be identified, told The Straits Times over the phone: “It is really tense right now. But the government is taking action and there is probably a cleaning-up process [by security forces] now.”
He said there was a perception that this round of violence was not entirely locally fomented. The Myanmar navy has been deployed off the coast to intercept outsiders trying to land, he noted.
The diplomat said the conflict would not necessarily strengthen hardliners in the army, which has always feared the break-up of Myanmar along ethnic lines if the country were to embrace liberal democracy.
Aung Naing Oo, deputy director of the Thailand-based Vahu Development Institute, said: “When authoritarian rule is lifted, something like this is bound to happen.”
Myanmar analysts have sounded warnings about the escalation of violence.
Mr Phil Robertson, deputy director in the region for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: “This is a very worrisome escalation of tit-for-tat violence.”
“Fundamentally, the government has to realize that its policy in Rakhine state is not working... They need a fundamental rethink on how they treat the Rohingya.”
Independent Myanmar analyst Richard Horsey said: “In a mature democracy, there may be more understanding if you have to roll out a heavy-handed response, but in people's minds, it is going to be linked to old repression rather than an understanding that it is needed to restore law and order.”
He warned that there was a risk that the state would be seen as partisan.