Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) - President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in western Rakhine state to stop violence between Buddhists and Muslims. For the president, if tensions continue, the country's steps towards democracy could be jeopardised.
Violence broke out about a week ago when a Buddhist woman was raped and killed. An angry crowd blamed Muslims and attacked a bus carrying Muslim passengers, killing ten.
This weekend, at least 500 houses and other buildings have been razed as the unrest spread with mob and revenge attacks. One report said 5,000 people have been made homeless.
The Rakhine state capital Sittwe is under tight security. But in Yangon, Buddhists protested demanding justice for the violence (pictured). In the previous days, Muslims had protested.
Sittwe is an important trading hub and the point of origin for oil and gas pipelines being built by China National Petroleum Corp that stretch to Yunnan province.
At the same time, the area is home to minority Muslims, including Roihingya, who are viewed as "illegal" immigrants from Bangladesh. In a tragic twist of fate, in Bangladesh, the Roihingya are seen as illegal immigrants from Myanmar.
With its 135 or more ethnic groups, Myanmar has always had difficulties in having them live together. In the past, the country's military junta used an iron fist against the more rebellious of them.
Yesterday's state of emergency is the first exceptional measure taken by Thein Sein, who became president more than a year ago and has been trying to move the country from a military dictatorship to a limited democracy.
Muslims are 4 per cent in a population of 60 million. Rohingya number 750,000 according to UN figures, mostly in Rakhine state.
Another million or so are divided between Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia.