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At least five people have been killed and dozens of homes burned to the ground in Arakan state’s Sandoway township where authorities on Wednesday claimed to have contained the latest bout of Muslim-Buddhist violence to hit Burma.
Sandoway township governor Kyaw Soe Linn told DVB that five people were killed as several mobs comprising hundreds of people descended on local villages on Tuesday, setting fire to homes and shops.
A local village headman told DVB that 43 Kaman Muslim houses across three villages in Thabyuchaing [Thabyuchaung] were torched, along with 12 Arakanese homes, a Muslim school and a local imam’s house.
The Sandoway district police commander added that at least 28 houses in the Muslim village Pauktaw had been destroyed, while two mosques in Kyaukgyi and Kyigan Ye were also torched.
But Kyaw Soe Linn insisted that calm had now been restored and authorities were working to assist victims.
“[Authorities] have begun work this morning to provide shelter and relief for those affected by the violence,” he said on Wednesday. A relief camp has been set up in Pauktaw village.
Sittwe-based Arakan state spokesperson Win Myiang said he only knew of one death, a 94-year old Muslim woman who was reportedly stabbed to death in Thabyuchaing on Tuesday. He added that at least 59 houses – from both Muslim and Buddhist families – had been destroyed.
Sandoway police commander could only confirm the Muslim woman’s death, adding that many others, including Buddhists, had been hurt.
“In Linthi village, Muslims with swords and stones attacked people on motorbikes, injuring four. And in Thabyuchaing, a [94-year-old] woman named Daw Aye Kyi was confirmed dead.”
The deaths follow two days of unrest in the township, which was reportedly sparked by a Buddhist trishaw driver telling police that he had been verbally abused by a Muslim shop owner in Thabyuchaing village tract. The shop owner was later hunted down by an angry mob.
“We don’t know what happened – the mob came around his house in the evening and set it on fire,” said Win Myiang.
According to a local witness, three rioters were injured when security forces shot them with rubber bullets. They were then taken to a local police station and detained.
“However, later in the day, the mob descended on the police station and demanded their release. Soon after, the riots started again,” said the witness.
Burma has been gripped by waves of religious violence since June last year when Buddhists first clashed in northern Arakan state with Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship and heavily persecuted. Unrest later spread to different parts of the country, including Mandalay and the commercial capital Rangoon, casting a heavy shadow over the country’s reform process.
The violence, which has increasingly targeted Burma’s minority Muslim community, has been linked to the rise of an extremist ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement known as “969” which calls on its followers to boycott Muslim businesses.
Advocates of 969 say that Muslims are trying to “Islamise” the Buddhist-majority country and have sought to introduce a ban on Buddhist women marrying Muslim men.
According to a report in Reuters, 969 supporters had been active in Sandoway, officially known as Thandwe, over the past month, including gathering outside the town hall to play nationalist songs.
This week’s riots coincide with a pre-scheduled visit by President Thein Sein, who arrived in Sandoway on Wednesday afternoon. On Tuesday, he travelled by helicopter from Sittwe to Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and the Rohingya-majority Maungdaw township near the Bangladeshi border, accompanied by senior officials and military representatives.
Thein Sein has come under fire for a perceived failure to tackle the root sources behind the religious clashes in Burma, which have displaced over 140,000 people and claimed over 200 lives. In June, he defended 969 as a peaceful movement and described its main advocate and notorious Islamophobic monk Wirathu as a “son of Buddha”.
Four major Muslim groups published an open letter to Thein Sein on Tuesday, calling on him to take swift action to protect religious minorities. Both UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the US embassy in Rangoon have issued statements condemning the unrest and urged ethnic reconciliation.
In a report published on Tuesday, the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned that religious violence could derail Burma’s fragile transition from military dictatorship to nominal democracy.
“At a moment of historic reform and opening, Myanmar [Burma] cannot afford to become hostage to intolerance and bigotry,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, ICG’s Asia programme director.
-Additional reporting by Ye Thu.