RANGOON — Inter-communal violence between Arakanese Buddhists and local Muslims continued to spread through villages in Thandwe Township, southern Arakan State, on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, according to a local community leader. He said six people died during the unrest, while 60 homes in five villages were destroyed.
Local police confirmed four deaths, while Arakan State spokesperson Win Myaing said 59 homes were destroyed. The official blamed the fresh inter-communal unrest on “Bengali people” who “wanted to create violence.”
Win Naing, a National League for Democracy representative in Thandwe Township, said his NLD office had received information about the incidents and deaths from local sources.
“Three [of the victims] are men and two are women. We even heard that some people have disappeared and we heard that there are some wounded, but we don’t have the exact number yet,” he told The Irrawaddy. “They are Kaman [Muslims], they are ethnic nationals—not outsiders.”
“I heard that the bodies of the dead would be brought to the hospital in Thandwe,” he added.
Win Naing said the five had been killed on Tuesday morning when an Arakanese Buddhist mob attacked Thapyu Kyain village, an ethnic Kaman Muslim fishing village located about 15 miles (25 km) from Thandwe town. Another Muslim village called Pauktaw was reportedly also burned down on Tuesday morning.
On Tuesday evening at around 5 pm, two other Muslim villages, called Mae Kyun and Shweli, were attacked by Buddhist mobs from neighboring villages, Win Naing said, adding that in Mae Kyun nine houses were burned down.
On Wednesday morning at around 6 am, a local mosque was destroyed in another Muslim village, called Kyi Kan, he said. An old man who tried to flee the violence supposedly suffered a heart attack and died.
A police officer in Thandwe confirmed violence had spread on Wednesday morning, as Buddhist villagers went on a rampage, attacking nearby Kaman villages. “Last night, some homes in some villages were burned down,” he said, “Today, we found 4 death bodies. They were Muslim men from Thapyu Kyain village.”
The officer said some Buddhist villagers were attacked by a group of Muslims on a road in Thandwe Township. “From our police information, four persons were wounded. They were travelling from Taungup town and came to Thandwe. They were attacked on the road by Muslim people while they were driving their motorbikes,” he said, adding that one of the victims had gone missing.
“They were beaten by sticks and even hit by knife. One is Chin ethnic and three other persons were Arakanese. They abandoned their motorbikes and ran away to escape death,” he said, adding that the victims were sent to Thandwe Hospital for medical treatment.
During the attack on Thapyu Kyain village on Tuesday morning, security forces fired warning shot to disperse a mob of “between 800 and 1,000 people,” police have said. Authorities have also said a 94-year-old Muslim woman was stabbed to death by mobs attacking the village.
Arakan State government spokesperson Win Myaing said he received reports that showed that one person was killed and 59 homes were destroyed in several villages in Thandwe Township.
Win Myaing said he believed the violence had been started by the Muslim minority, alleging that the group wanted to attract attention as President Thein Sein is currently visiting the region. “Bengali people wanted to create violence now,” he claimed.
Lu Lay, a Muslim resident of Thandwe town, said he believed local authorities were providing insufficient security for the Muslim community. “It is quiet in the town, but people are still scared because there is not enough security,” he said.
The attacks are the worst outbreak of inter-communal violence in Arakan State in several months, and the violence comes as Thein Sein makes his first official visit to the strife-torn region in western Burma since unrest first broke out in June 2012.
Thein Sein landed in the Arakan State capital Sittwe on Tuesday morning, with a delegation comprising cabinet ministers and senior military commanders, and planned to visit Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and Maungdaw townships, government mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar reported.
The president was flown to the towns by helicopter, but the newspaper provided few other details on Thein Sein’s visit and made no mention of the current unrest.
Arakan State spokesperson Win Myaing said Thein Sein visited a camp for displaced villagers near Sittwe and the state legislature on Wednesday morning, and would visit Kyauk Phyu Township in the afternoon. He added that Thein Sein was scheduled to visit Thandwe on Wednesday.
NLD representative Win Naing said Thein Sein had arrived in the town on Wednesday afternoon and was scheduled to stay overnight.
A Thandwe police officer said authorities had been expecting the president to visit. “Our security forces have been on standby in the town, as the president is scheduled to visit,” he said.
Thein Sein’s government has been under international pressure to ease inter-communal tensions in Arakan State and improve the plight of tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya Muslims.
The government has imposed numerous restrictions on the displaced, who live in squalid, crowded camps. Authorities are accused of doing little to prevent the outbreak of violence against Muslim minorities. The UN human rights rapporteur on Burma has said authorities have been complicit in attacks by Buddhist mobs.
The US Embassy in Rangoon said in a statement on Wednesday that it was “saddened to hear reports that at least one person was killed, several injured, and hundreds of civilians displaced in violence that included arson attacks destroying dozens of homes and several mosques.”
“We strongly urge the authorities to respond quickly and decisively to the violence to help protect all the region’s residents and their property. We further urge the authorities to thoroughly investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the violence.”
NLD representative Win Naing said he was concerned about a further spread of violence in Thandwe Township, in particular because security forces were not taking decisive action to stem the unrest.
“The police don’t want to use their bullets. I don’t mean they should shoot the attackers, but they can shoot in the air to stop the mobs,” he said. “More homes were burned down now because they are reluctant to do that.”
In late June this year, inter-communal unrest also broke out in Thandwe and four Muslim-owned homes were destroyed and several cars damaged.
More than 100,000 people live in Thandwe, a coastal town in southern Arakan State, and about half the population is Muslim. The town has an airport that is used by tourists visiting the popular beach resort Ngapali, located nearby.
The Muslim population of Thandwe comprises mostly ethnic Kaman and other recognized Muslim minorities, unlike in northern Arakan State, which has a large Muslim population who identify themselves as Rohingyas.
The latter group is not recognized by the government as Burmese citizens, and officials pointedly refer to the group as “Bengalis,” to suggest they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Thandwe Township was largely spared from the bloody inter-communal violence that broke out in Sittwe, Maungdaw and other townships further north a year ago, where Arakanese Buddhists clashed with Rohingya Muslims.
During last year’s outbreaks of violence, 192 people were killed and about 140,000 people were displaced, most of them Muslims. About half of the displaced were Muslim residents who were chased out of Sittwe by local Buddhist Arakanese groups.
In March and April, the sectarian tensions spread through Mandalay and Pegu divisions in central Burma and hundreds of Muslim-owned homes and shops were destroyed, 44 people were killed and more than 13,000 people, mostly Muslims, were forced to flee.
This story was updated at 6:30 pm on October 2, 2013.