Clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists have left 89 people dead.

Clashes last week between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, for the second time this year, have left 89 people dead, more than 100 injured and tens of thousands homeless. Ashok Nigam, United Nations Resident & Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Yangon, tells Nirupama Subramanian in this interview in the Myanmar capital that the situation has now been brought under control by the Thein Sein government, but a “tense calm” prevails in the region, and leaders of “all political parties” need to be forthcoming with messages of peace and reconciliation. Excerpts from the interview:

Can you give us an update of the situation in the Rakhine state?

From October 21, there were a series of incidents in a number of locations. In eight of the townships, we know there have been incidents, and there has been a significant displacement. The President has issued the figures of roughly now about 32,000 people [displaced] as a result of the inter-communal conflict. He has also given the figures of the number of dead [89].

I have been to five of these townships [last] Friday and Saturday. We’ve seen a large number of people in this area. In Myebon, where the area and the houses have been burnt, the people have moved to a hill very close to where there were living. In Minbya, they’ve also moved. This was a totally rural area where there were incidents. Then in Yinthie village in Mrauk-U township, where a number of people died, and people have moved to temporary shelters they’ve built on their own. There are roughly 2,000 people displaced in that village. We also saw down south in Kyaukpyu, where there was a large area close to the coast which has been burnt, there were a number of people in a temporary shelter behind the military base. Finally, in Ramree township, further south, it’s an island, we’ve had a number of people displaced.

There were reports of possible incidents over the weekend in Ramree and in Kyauknimaw on Tuesday. We did speak with the minister, and they’d sent in 200 security forces there. I believe no incidents happened, but certainly there is a lot of concern that the area may be susceptible. The government has managed to send in security forces now. We’ve not heard of any incidents but clearly there is still fear among a number of these people.

How would you describe the situation in Rakhine now? Is it stable?

It is stable, but I think it’s a tense calm among the people. I know some people are concerned and worried and fearful but so far the government has managed to control this new eruption that took place. They’ve indicated a number of arrests that they’ve made. … I’ve also made statements to the minister that they need to send out strong messages of reconciliation from all the leaders in the country. Many of these people have been living very peacefully in these areas and it is important that messages of reconciliation are sent by the government and by the senior leaders of the country across the political parties. Some have started making those statements. They’ve made these statements in the past as well, so I think reinforcement of these statements is important.

The third element is the humanitarian effort. We’re working with the government to ensure food and shelter, the two main, initially the priorities, reach these people. Some of these places are hard to reach.

When you said that all leaders must convey messages of reconciliation, were you referring to Aung San Suu Kyi?

It is up to all the leaders to make this determination and we certainly believe that messages of reconciliation and calm are important. I don’t wish to name individual persons, but I think the onus is on everyone …

The U.N. report of a couple of days ago, talked about how humanitarian workers were being denied access because of their perceived bias, and that they were being threatened…

There is a security issue in the sense that we’ve to go with the security forces in some of these areas because of the communities in some of these areas making it difficult for some of our national workers, not so much our international people, to work and access those areas. We call upon the government in those cases to provide us with security…And the government has been very supportive in providing us with that element where it is required.

…Of course we want independent access because it is very important for our own neutrality and our humanitarian principles that we deliver assistance in an impartial and neutral way. And we continue to work on that basis with the government.

How real are the fears of radicalisation in the region?

Well, I think in this country, people of various religions have lived very harmoniously. So I don’t think we should do anything which cites any divisions. Their leaders have emphasised all the time that this should not be seen as a religious issue, it is an inter-communal issue, certainly, but it does not really extend to other parts of the country, and we certainly hope it does not.

You said it was not a religious conflict. So what is the conflict actually about?

The issue in the North has been the issue of statelessness of many of the Muslims, who they call Bengali Muslims. The issue has prevailed for a long time and we impress upon the government that they need to address this issue of statelessness of these people. The government has its Citizenship Act. The President has said they would apply this Citizenship Act and that the rule of law needs to prevail …that is a legal process…

In the meantime, we believe all these people need to live harmoniously. The root causes of this are also the lack of economic and social development of the state. Rakhine is the second poorest state in the country after Chin, and the population is significantly larger. So a large number of people need economic and social development. That’s one of the root causes beyond statelessness.

Statelessness is also linked to the issue of mobility of these people; again that is an issue that needs to be addressed simultaneously. But the lack of education has been one of the factors, the lack of employment opportunities [is another] — these are all elements that the government needs to address on a medium and long-term basis, and we believe that investment is critically important for the infrastructure, plus social development is critically important in the medium and long term.

nirupama.s@thehindu.co.in