SIN THET MAW, Myanmar (AP) — Stranded beside their decrepit flotilla of wooden boats, on a muddy beach far from home, the Muslim refugees tell story after terrifying story of their exodus from a once-peaceful town on Myanmar's western coast.
They were attacked one quiet evening, they say, by Buddhist mobs determined to expel them from the island port of Kyaukphyu.
There were chaotic clashes and gruesome killings, and a wave of arson strikes so intense that flames eventually engulfed their entire neighborhood.
In the end, all they could do was run.
So they piled into 70 or 80 fishing boats — some 4,000 souls in all — and fled into the sea. In those final moments, many caught one last dizzying glimpse of the town they grew up in — of a sky darkened by smoke billowing from a horizon of burning homes, of beaches filled with seething Buddhist throngs who had spent the day pelting their departing boats with slingshot-fired iron darts.
The Oct. 24 exodus was part of a wave of violence that has shaken western Myanmar twice in the last six months. But what began with a series of skirmishes that pitted ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingya, a Muslim minority, appears to have evolved into something far more disturbing: a region-wide effort by Buddhists to drive Muslims out with such ferocious shows of hatred that they could never return.
Although many Rohingya have lived here for generations, they are widely seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and most are denied citizenship. Similar mass expulsions have happened twice before under the country's former army rulers. But the fact that they are occurring again now, during Myanmar's much-praised transition to democratic rule, is particularly troubling.
Both reformist President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, have condemned the violence. Yet neither has defended the Rohingya, even though Muslims account for roughly two-thirds of the 200 dead, 95 percent of the 115,000 displaced and 90 percent of the homes destroyed so far, according to government statistics.
Kyaukphyu was significant because those expelled from there included another Muslim minority, the Kaman, whose right to citizenship is recognized. That they too were targeted raises fears the conflict is spreading to Myanmar's wider 4 percent Muslim minority.
For Myanmar, also called Burma, the town symbolizes the country's hopes of scoring a piece of the Asian economic surge. China is building a deep-water port and an oil pipeline terminal there.
"We never thought this could happen to us," said Kyaw Thein, a 48-year-old Kaman who fled Kyaukphyu and is now a refugee in the island village of Sin Thet Maw.
"We don't feel safe anymore, even here," he said. "Who says we won't be attacked again?"
The unrest in Rakhine state was triggered by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in late May, allegedly by three Rohingya men. But the crisis stems from something that goes back much further: a dispute over when Muslims first settled here, and who among them qualifies for citizenship.
Buddhists say the Muslims are foreigners who came to seize land and spread the Islamic faith. Muslims say they settled here long ago, legally, and suffer widespread discrimination. The issue has been exacerbated by exploding population growth and what rights groups say is open racism against the darker-skinned Rohingya, who have South Asian roots.
The Kaman, numbering perhaps only in the tens of thousands, are said to be descended from archers who once guarded a Mughal king. The Rohingya number at least 800,000 by U.N. estimates, and they have long been unwanted here.
In 1977, Myanmar's military rulers, together with residents and local authorities, drove 200,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, where 12,000 starved to death and most of the rest were forced back to Myanmar by the Bangladeshi government. A similar horror played out in 1991, when Myanmar's army drove out 250,000 Rohingya.
After the June violence, prominent Buddhist monks issued written warnings against doing business with the Rohingya, or even speaking to them. Rohingya were kept away from schools, markets, even hospitals. Security forces restricted their movement, particularly around their refugee camps. International groups were threatened for providing aid.
Then, in October, there were demonstrations against plans by the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference to establish a liaison office in the state capital, Sittwe. One such march, in Kyaukphyu, brought out thousands.
The rally spooked the Muslims who are roughly 6,000 of the town's 25,000 people. Rumors spread of an imminent new wave of arson attacks. Captains anchored their boats close to shore. One Muslim woman, Yeak Thai Ma, said some local officials began telling Muslims, "this place is no longer for you."
On Oct. 21, western Myanmar was hit with its second major spasm of violence. Within days, it had spread to nine of Rakhine state's 17 townships.
Unlike the June unrest, which had displaced 24,000 Rakhine and 28,000 Rohingya in the first week — the vast majority of the 35,000 refugees this time were Muslim, and 97 percent of property losses were Rohingya, compared with 78 percent in June, according to government statistics.
Human Rights Watch says anti-Muslim assaults were organized by Rakhine groups, at times with support from security forces and local government officials. The government denies the charges.
There were indications the violence was coordinated; on a single day, three major Muslim neighborhoods came under attack.
One of them, the village of Yin Thei in Mrauk-U township, was overrun Oct. 23 by thousands of Rakhine armed with swords and spears. They slaughtered dozens of people who were buried in mass graves, according to Human Rights Watch. Satellite images of the village show almost nothing left but ashes.
The same day, farther south, several hundred Rakhine descended on Pauktaw by boat and forced the entire Rohingya population to flee, the rights group said. An AP team that traveled there confirmed two seaside Muslim neighborhoods were charred along with a mosque that was apparently finished off with sledgehammers.