Violence erupts again in Myanmar despite visit by President Thein Sein

Buddhist-Muslim conflict flares as president tours Rakhine state seeking solution to conflict

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 October, 2013, 5:32pm


Buddhist mobs killed a 94-year-old Muslim woman and torched more than 70 homes yesterday as sectarian violence again gripped Myanmar's Rakhine state despite a visit by President Thein Sein, officials and residents said.

With attacks reported in several villages on the outskirts of Thandwe, where tensions have been mounting for days, the number of casualties could rise.

More than 700 rioters, some swinging swords, took to the streets yesterday in Thabyuchaing, about 20 kilometres north of the coastal town, police officer Kyaw Naing said.

An elderly Muslim woman died from stab wounds in the clashes that followed, the officer said, and between 70 and 80 houses were set on fire.

Witnesses reported smouldering buildings - and several injured Buddhist Rakhines - in Shwe Hlay. A police officer said Linthi also was hit by rioters.

Both villages are about 17 kilometres from Thandwe.

The visit by President Thein Sein to the divided region was his first since sectarian violence broke out more than a year ago.

He arrived in the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe under tight security early yesterday and was scheduled to travel to several more towns, including Maungdaw to the north and, today, Thandwe to the south, said a senior official in the president's office.

He said Thein Sein "is going there to help find a long-term solution to the problem" and would meet with government officials and residents.

A heavy security presence failed to deter the attackers, however, with witnesses saying soldiers and police made no efforts to step in. A 6pm curfew was imposed.

Sectarian clashes that began in Rakhine in June last year have since morphed into an anti-Muslim campaign that has spread to towns and villages nationwide.

So far, more than 240 people have been killed and more than 140,000 have fled their homes, the vast majority of them Muslims.

Thein Sein, who has been praised for making moves to transition from half a century of harsh military rule, has been criticised for failing to contain the unrest and protect the country's embattled Muslim minority.

Many of those targeted so far have been ethnic Rohingya Muslims, considered by many in the country to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh, though many of their families arrived generations ago.

However, in the latest flare-up, the victims were Kamans, another Muslim minority group, whose citizenship is recognised.

The trouble started on Saturday, when a Buddhist taxi driver alleged he'd been verbally abused by a Muslim shop owner while trying to park his vehicle.

Hours later, rocks were thrown at the man's home. And on Sunday, as anger spread, two houses owned by Muslims were burned to the ground.

The violence has proven to be a major challenge for Thein Sein's government, which rights groups say has done little to crack down on religious intolerance and failed to bridge a divide that has left hundreds of thousands of Muslims marginalised, many of them trapped in prison-like camps for the displaced.

While radical monks have helped fuel the crisis, saying Muslims pose a threat to Buddhist culture and traditions, critics say a failure by the government and society as a whole to speak out is helping perpetuate the violence.

"Political, religious and community leaders need to condemn hate speech," Jim Della-Giacoma of the International Crisis Group said in a statement.