Share “Myanmar Muslims recall Buddhist assault”

Myanmar Muslims recall Buddhist assault

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 29, 2012 at 7:24 am •  Published: December 29, 2012
Advertisement

That night, it was Kyaukphyu's turn.

___

Hla Win, a 23-year-old mother of two, was eating a dinner of fish curry and rice with her family when she heard shouting outside. It was 7 p.m., and the attacks had begun on East Pikesake district, where most of Kyaukphyu's Muslim fishing community lives.

Her husband, a 26-year-old fisherman named Maung Lay, joined a group of men struggling to douse flames leaping from a mosque with plastic buckets of water. Security forces posted nearby ordered them to move back, and one opened fire, killing Maung Lay, according to several witnesses.

Rare amateur video of that night, seen by The Associated Press, shows Buddhist mobs armed with long sticks or spears and hurling jars of burning gasoline toward homes swamped in bright orange flames as men shout in the darkness: "Throw! Throw!" and "Watch out!"

In another clip, attackers can be seen flinging firebombs over a wall into more burning houses. They crouch behind rectangular shields of corrugated iron sheeting which are being pelted with rocks, presumably by Muslims defending themselves.

As the night wore on, the adversaries wrapped bandannas around their foreheads — red for Buddhists, white for Muslims.

It is not clear what effort, if any, was made to stop the arson attacks. The video shows armed security forces walking among large crowds of Buddhists as fires burn, doing nothing to halt them.

In one scene, a policeman or soldier orders a Muslim mob to back away as fires burn on one side of the road, or else "we will shoot you." A young Muslim man surges forward and fires a projectile from a slingshot. Gunshots ring out and the crowd retreats.

A police chief in Kyaukphyu, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said more than 100 police deployed in those first few hours along with soldiers and firefighters. But they came under attack by Muslims, making it impossible to extinguish the blazes before the homes were destroyed.

When the violence tapered off around 2 a.m., 69 homes had been wrecked, the police chief said.

That night, hundreds of Kaman and Rohingya took refuge offshore, on Muslim-owned boats.

Few, if any, slept.

Shortly after dawn, it all began again.

___

As the sun rose, Kyaw Thein, who made his living painting homes and offices, tried to return to his own home to gather clothes, blankets and any valuables he could carry.

But his house was already ablaze, and he retreated back to the boat. On the beach, Rakhine mobs were gathering.

He began to run.

Seconds later, someone plunged a machete into his upper right back. When he turned to see who, he was shocked: it was a Buddhist fisherman he had considered a friend.

"We all asked the same question," said Kyaw Thein, who is nursing a gaping wound. "How could the people we know do this to us?'"

The police chief said the Rakhine crowds swelled dramatically that morning as some 20,000 poured in from neighboring villages.

Soon, the situation was out of control.

As the fires spread, more and more Muslims sought refuge on the boats. Some sailed away, but a low tide stranded others for hours.

Witnesses interviewed by The Associated Press said the two sides faced off along the beach, mostly at a distance, shouting insults. One Muslim man said security forces posted on the shore fired in the air to push back a Rakhine mob, but there were too many to stop. Other mobs surged forward, and clashes ensued.

Tears streaming down her cheeks, Hla Hla Yee, a 36-year-old Rohingya woman, said a Rakhine mob on the beach hacked up her son. She watched from a boat as they held up his remains. Other witnesses corroborated her account.

Investigations conducted by Human Rights Watch found that local security forces killed ethnic Kaman Muslims while soldiers stood by.

Atrocities were committed by Muslims too. Matthew Smith, of Human Rights Watch, said they had attacked and in some cases killed Rakhine civilians before fleeing. One Muslim man confessed to holding a severed head aloft from one of the boats, Smith said.

By the time it was over, more than 4,000 Muslims had fled on ships so packed there wasn't enough room to lie down. Another 1,700 moved to a makeshift camp outside town.

Police say 867 homes were destroyed — almost all of them Muslim.

The official casualty toll was nine Muslims dead, and two Rakhine.

___

When the first refugees from Kyaukphyu arrived in Sin Thet Maw, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) away, they were met with two very different reactions. Rohingya villagers opened their homes to them; the Rakhine ignored them.

The village, like many in Rakhine state, had already been split along sectarian lines even before violence first broke out in June. Its Buddhist inhabitants lived separated from the Rohingya by a long, wide field that cuts a neat line between the two. The communities traded used to trade, but all interaction ceased in June.

A Rakhine named Said Thar Tun Maung, a local government administrator on the island, said 200 Buddhists, mostly women and children, fled when the refugees arrived, fearing they would be overwhelmed. He said he had not spoken to any of Muslims and did not care about the ordeal that brought them here.

Within days, the refugee population rose even more as another flotilla that had initially landed in the state capital, Sittwe, joined them.

Many of the displaced fled wearing only the clothes they wore. Now they sleep on a windy beach under white U.N. tarps and tents held up by bamboo sticks. They live off their savings, U.N. handouts of rice and beans, and shellfish they catch in the shallows.

They have no schools to send their children to, and say authorities don't let them fish. They worry about maintaining the vital fleet of dilapidated fishing boats on which their future depends; they have few tools to repair them.

The government has yet to help, or even ask how it can.

Most of all, the refugees wonder what they'll do next. Some talk of making new lives for themselves in Sin Thet Maw. Others hope they can emigrate — a dim prospect since few countries will take them.

One thing is sure, though.

"We can never go back to Kyaukphyu," said Kyaw Thein. "After what happened ... it will never be the same."

___

Associated Press Writer Yadana Htun contributed to this report.