Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Killings in Myanmar's Rakhine state

War among the pagodas

ETHNIC violence is continuing and spreading in the state of Rakhine, in western Myanmar, between Buddhists and Muslims from the Rohingya minority. Six Buddhists and an unknown number of Rohingyas have been reported killed in recent days near the ancient town of Mrauk-U. At least ten nearby Muslim villages have been burned.

The first fires followed reports that three Buddhists had been killed by Muslims. Two of the dead men were identified as Aung Moe, 28, and Tha Kyaw, 31. Two Burmese soldiers were reportedly also injured by gunfire. Their condition is unknown. One elderly Muslim was reported to have died in the fires, in which, according to Myanmar’s official news agency, 1,039 houses were destroyed in the first day’s rioting.

In the ensuing violence, one local resident said “many” Muslims had been killed, including children, and many more houses burnt. Three more Rakhine Buddhists were also reported dead, with one shot by soldiers, while apparently trying to prevent the fighting.

The army has been blocking access to the two villages torched on Monday 22nd, called Tharat Ok and Parein (according to local residents). So it has been impossible to verify these reports.

From about nine in the morning on October 22nd, smoke could be seen rising on the outskirts of Mrauk-U. Hundreds of Rakhine Buddhists, from the surrounding area, mostly young men headed for the scene by foot and on motorcycles, tuk-tuks and crowded lorries. They armed themselves with a variety of crude weapons—swords, spears, sickles, pitchforks, cleavers, slingshots and petrol bombs. Asked where they were going one tugged at an imaginary beard, and made a throat-cutting gesture.

On Monday night, Mrauk-U itself was guarded by similarly armed gangs of young men, and some Rakhine villagers came into town for shelter. The next day reports came of fresh fires at two different villages, followed by the new killings.

Rakhine has been tense since June when dozens died and tens of thousands were displaced in ethnic violence. Some 75,000, mostly Rohingyas, are still in camps in the state capital, Sittwe.
Since then the Muslim villages near Mrauk-U have been sealed off. Their inhabitants are barred from entering the town, and there have been efforts to enforce a commercial boycott by threatening Rakhine merchants who have tried to trade with them.

The latest trouble started on the evening of October 21st, when a Rakhine Buddhist trader was reportedly killed by a mob in Mrauk-U after he was caught selling a large quantity of rice to Muslims.

One local Rakhine resident says that the first fires were started deliberately by Muslims themselves, with the intent of destroying an old and damaged house, but he concedes that part of the problem may be that the Muslims are “hungry and thirsty”. The army is now said to be delivering food, water and medical supplies.

Mrauk-U, a former capital of Rakhine when it was the independent kingdom of Arakan, is in better times a tourist centre. More than 150 temples, pagodas and monasteries dot an idyllic landscape of lakes, rice paddy and wooded hills. Very few tourists now visit.

Trouble has also been reported from at least three other places in Rakhine state, including Kyauk Phu, where South Korean contractors are building a terminal for two oil-and-gas pipelines going to China. Banyan for The Economist (Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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