SITTWE, Myanmar: Heavy rain Wednesday brought an uneasy calm to western Myanmar after five days of deadly sectarian strife, though residents said they were too afraid to sleep at night and faced food shortages.
At least 21 people have died and more than 1,600 homes have been torched in the conflict pitting ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against stateless Rohingya Muslims in coastal Rakhine state, some of the worst sectarian unrest recorded in Myanmar in years. Some of the fires were extinguished only by the rain.
Fears of renewed violence halted bus and ferry deliveries of food and other cargo from Yangon to Sittwe, Rakhine's capital, limiting supplies and sending prices skyrocketing. Shops, banks, schools and markets were closed.
President Thein Sein has declared an emergency in Rakhine and warned that the spiraling violence could threaten the democratic reforms tentatively transforming the country after half a century of military rule.
The U.N. special adviser on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, visited Sittwe on Wednesday, accompanied by government officials, and then flew to another city that has seen violence, Maungdaw in northern Rakhine state near Bangladesh.
Ferry cargo companies that deliver to the area stopped service on Tuesday and will resume once security is restored, said a manager at the Shwe Pyi Thit ferry service. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to sensitivities surrounding the sectarian violence.
Road transport in and out of the cities stopped a few days ago.
"Food is very scarce and prices are high," said Sittwe resident Khin Thazin. She said the main market was closed and a handful of roadside vendors were out briefly in the morning but didn't have stocks to meet the demand. "Everything sold out in an hour."
Another resident, San Shwe, contacted by telephone, said he did not trust the quiet brought by Wednesday's rains.
"It is quiet here this morning but life has not returned to normal. We live in fear every day and night," said San Shwe, recounting unconfirmed rumors that authorities had seized weapons caches from Muslim villagers.
The sectarian tensions in the area are long-standing, but the violence that erupted Friday was triggered by the rape and murder last month of a Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Muslims, and the June 3 lynching of 10 Muslims in apparent retaliation.
Security forces have struggled to quell the violence that has prompted thousands of Muslim villagers to flee. About 1,500 Rohingyas were turned away from entering Bangladesh by boats since the weekend.
Human Rights Watch urged Bangladesh to open its border to Rohingyas seeking refuge.
"By closing its border when violence ... is out of control, Bangladesh is putting lives at grave risk," Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"Bangladesh has an obligation under international law to keep its border open to people fleeing threats to their lives and provide them protection," Frelick said.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said Tuesday the impoverished country's resources already are strained.
Myanmar considers Rohingyas to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh says Rohingyas have been living in Myanmar for centuries and should be recognized there as citizens.
The United Nations' refugee agency estimates 800,000 Rohingyas live in Myanmar's mountainous Rakhine state. Thousands attempt to flee every year to Bangladesh, Malaysia and elsewhere.
Bangladeshi officials have taken in at least one Rohingya: a one-and-a-half-month old baby boy found in an abandoned boat in the River Naf, near Shah Pori Island in Teknaf.
Border guard official Maj. Saiful Wadud said the other passengers, sensing the presence of border guards and coast guards, had jumped into the river late Tuesday as the boat neared the shore, but the baby was left behind.
For now, the officials handed the baby over to villager Kabir Ahmed. The fisherman said the baby was doing well as he was being breast-fed by his wife, who has four boys of her own.
It wasn't clear Wednesday what ultimately would become of the child. -- AGENCIES