Burma violence: Tension high in Rakhine state

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Media captionEmergency declared in west Burma

Tension is high in Burma's western Rakhine state after President Thein Sein imposed a state of emergency.

A spate of violence involving Buddhists and Muslims in the past week has left seven people dead and hundreds of properties damaged in the area.

Trouble flared after the murder of a Buddhist woman last month, followed by an attack on a bus carrying Muslims.

On Sunday, former colonial power the UK urged authorities and community leaders to begin talks to end the violence.

Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne said he was "deeply concerned" by the situation and that the UK and other countries would continue to watch developments closely.

A state of emergency essentially allows the military to take over administrative control of the region.

State television said the order, imposed late Sunday night, was in response to increasing "unrest and terrorist attacks" and "intended to restore security and stability to the people immediately".

According to a Reuters report, the violence over the weekend began on Friday in the Rakhine State town of Maungdaw, spreading to the capital Sittwe and neighbouring villages.

Rival Buddhist and Muslim groups were witnessed setting houses on fire, reports said.

"We have now ordered troops 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.

Threat to democracy

In a televised speech, President Thein Sein said the violence could put the country's moves towards democracy in danger.

"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 terrorise and kill each other, there's a danger that [the troubles] could multiply and move beyond Rakhine," he said.

"If this happens, the general public should be aware that the country's stability and peace, democratisation process and development, which are only in transition right now, could be severely affected and much would be lost."

A nominally civilian government was elected in 2010 and, in April this year, opposition politicians led by Aung San Suu Kyi entered Burma's parliament following historic by-elections.

However, the government is still dominated by the military and concerns over political repression and human rights abuses continue.

The clashes began on 4 June when a mob attacked a bus in Taungup, Rakhine province, apparently mistakenly believing some of the passengers were responsible for the earlier rape and murder of a Buddhist woman.

Rakhine state is named for the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist majority but also has a sizeable Muslim population, including the Rohingya minority.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group and are stateless, as Burma considers them to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.