THANDWE — After four days of attacks on at least five Muslim villages around Thandwe town, southern Arakan State, inter-communal violence seemed have to come to a halt by Thursday.
But hundreds of Muslim villagers remain scattered throughout the countryside after they were forced to flee attacks by Arakanese Buddhist mobs on their communities. Some fled to nearby Muslim villages or into local forests and other hideouts.
On Thursday evening, small groups of Muslims were trying to collect some of their remaining belongings from their home villages under police protection.
In Pauktaw, a village where 28 homes were burned down on Tuesday, a frightened ethnic Kaman Muslim family was collecting some belongings and livestock, while a few unarmed policemen provided security.
“I am losing my life. I am losing my life,” Ba Saw Lay, 30, said repeatedly, as he loaded some of the family’s belongings into a small truck while dusk fell over the paddy fields around the village. Ba Saw Lay said he was a farmer who was born and raised in Pauktaw.
But now, he can no longer stay in his native village. “They burned down my house. I have nowhere to stay,” he said.
His young daughter tried to collect a few chicks, which seem to have lost their mother during the recent chaos.
“I could not find their mother. That’s why I tried to catch all of them to save them,” Myint Myint Naing said. Soon after, the little girl broke down in tears. “Please help us… We have no future now and no place where we can stay safely,” she told Irrawaddy reporters.
During a visit to the villages in the countryside around Thandwe town, a few dozen security forces could be seen patrolling the main roads. In Pauktaw village, Buddhist youths carrying sticks and swords walked around, while police looked on. An Arakanese man said he did not know who burned the Muslim homes in his village, adding, “I was not at my house when it happened.”
A police officer told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that a mere 80 security forces had been deployed to bring Thandwe Township under control.
A video posted on Youtube on Thursday, purportedly recorded by police officers, claims to show a Buddhist mob of several hundred people heading towards a Muslim village in Thandwe Township.
Police can be heard speaking to the crowd through megaphone, ordering them: “Please don’t go ahead. The law doesn’t allow arson. Government officials, including the president, are trying to resolve the situation.” A man wearing red scarf and carrying a megaphone is seen leading the mob, which is temporarily deterred from advancing.
Nge Pu, a woman belonging to the Kaman family who were packing to leave Paktauw village, said local Muslims felt unsafe as police had failed to protect them during the recent attacks. “We could not trust these security forces because we told them our people were under attack, they did not come to help,” she said.
“We saw that some people came to check where we [Muslims] are now staying. They can attack us any time as we do not have enough protection,” Nge Pu said. A Muslim youth called Ko Gyi said, “We have no places to run to anymore. If they come to attack us, we just fight back until we die.”
The complaints echo recurrent claims made by Burmese Muslim leaders and international human rights groups, which have accused the Burma government and Arakan State authorities of doing little to prevent the Buddhist mob attacks on Muslim minorities in the country.
The US-based Human Rights Watch has alleged that Rakhine National Development Party (RNDP) members, Buddhist leaders and ethnic Arakanese civil society groups organized the attacks on the Rohingya Muslim minority in northern Arakan in June and October 2012, with tacit support of state authorities.
According to several Thandwe inhabitants, anti-Muslim sentiments in the town in southern Arakan State began to rise after Aug. 26. On that day a community organization called Protection of Nationality, Religion and Dhamma organized ‘Buddhist Day’, an unofficial religious celebration that was proposed as a national holiday in Burma in the early 1960s, but which was never officially introduced.
Thandwe National League for Democracy representative Win Naing said the event drew tens of thousands of local people and hundreds of monks, adding that the ultra-nationalist Buddhist 969 movement had used the event as a platform to actively spread its message.
The 969 movement, led by the Mandalay-based monk U Wirathu, has become notorious across Burma for spreading virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric, such as calls for the Buddhist majority to shun Muslim-owned shops.
Stickers, flags and flyers of the 969 movement started to appear all over Thandwe, said Win Naing, while the movement’s songs — with its fiery, nationalist messages — started being played in public spaces in the town.
A Muslim resident of Thandwe said, “People were playing  songs about protecting their religion and they started hanging Buddhist flags around the town. That’s how the tensions started.”
The town had already experienced a brief outburst of anti-Muslim violence in early July, when three Muslim-owned homes were destroyed, but the tensions came to a head last Sunday, after an argument broke out between the owner of a motorbike carrying a Buddhist flag and a local Kaman Muslim.
The Muslim was taken in for questioning by local police, but a Buddhist mob gathered at his house and began pelting it with stones. Later that night, several Muslim homes were burned in Thandwe, a town of around 100,000 inhabitants, while the violence began to spread through villages around the town.
More than 100 houses and several mosques were burned from Sunday to Wednesday, in the Muslim villages of Thapyu Kyain, Pauktaw and Mae Kyun. Two other Kaman villages were also attacked. Six people were reportedly killed and at least five injured in the violence, which caused hundreds of Muslim residents to flee.
The unrest coincided with President Thein Sein’s first visit to the strife-torn region in western Burma since violence broke out last year. About 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, were displaced and 192 people were killed during two waves of violence in June and October 2012.
Burma’s government refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens, but the Kaman Muslims in southern Arakan are recognized as an official minority.
Thein Sein visited the state capital Sittwe, Kyaukphyu, Maungdaw and Thandwe townships on Tuesday and Wednesday, and he met with Muslim and Buddhist community leaders. During his visit, he said that “external motives” were behind the violence in Thandwe Township, according to state-owned newspaper The New Light of Myanmar.
“Ethnic Rakhine [Arkanese] and ethnic Kaman have been living here in peaceful coexistence for many years,” he was quoted as saying. “According to the evidence in hand, rioters who set fire to the villages are outsiders. Participation of all is needed to expose and arrest those who got involved in the incident,” said the president.
Since Wednesday, Thandwe police have been making several arrests in relation to the violence. Two local RNDP members, including the Thandwe RNDP chairman Maung Pu, were apprehended, while two members of civil society group Protection of Nationality, Religion and Dhamma were also detained.
“Now, Maung Pu is in Thandwe Prison,” Thandwe RNDP secretary Maung Phyu told The Irrawaddy on Friday, adding that four more Arakanese community leaders from Thandwe had been detained by authorities.
Maung Phy said that another nine people, from both Arakan and Muslim communities, had been arrested in the villages surrounding the town. “Now Thandwe and the villages are under control of authorities,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lin Thant and Paul Vrieze.