Security forces in Myanmar unable to quell sectarian violence
Even as president toured sites of unrest, police couldn't stop Buddhists' rampage, Muslim villagers say
Even as the president came to western Myanmar to urge an end to sectarian violence last week, security forces could not prevent Buddhist mobs from torching the homes of minority Muslims or hacking them to death, at times unwittingly even encouraging them.
That has raised questions about the government's ability to quell a virulent strain of religious hatred blamed for the deaths of more than 240 people in the last 18 months.
Five Muslims were killed in an attack on Tuesday in Thandwe township, just hours before President Thein Sein touched down for a scheduled visit.
He promised an immediate investigation and, with uncharacteristic speed, state-run media by Saturday night said 44 suspects had been arrested, though few other details were released.
Still, as soldiers walked the dusty streets in the hardest-hit village of Thabyuchaing, semi-automatics slung across their shoulders, Muslim residents were afraid.
They said authorities had plenty of opportunities to prevent a series of attacks on Tuesday, each more brutal than the next, but did nothing. More than 110 homes were burned to the ground, and nearly 500 people were left homeless.
Initially, the Buddhist mobs, numbering about 150, entered before dawn, setting one house on fire, but Muslim residents were able to push them back, said Myint Aung, standing before a charred mosque and several homes.
Police detained three suspects soon after, but released them almost immediately following threats of more violence, he said.
Though police promised the Muslim villagers protection - and disarmed them and ordered them back into their homes - the mobs returned in even greater numbers.
Among the dead were a 94-year-old woman and an 89-year-old man, both too old to run, each with multiple stab wounds.
"We had no way to protect ourselves," said Win Myint, another resident, standing in front of his demolished home.
"And the police did nothing. They just looked on. Now everyone is living in fear."
Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin denied the charges that police or soldiers failed to take necessary action.
There was more sectarian violence in Myanmar late on Saturday, this time in the southern delta region, with police and residents saying Buddhist mobs destroyed a pair of Muslim homes. It was the first time sectarian unrest was reported in the area since the violence started in June last year.
The violence in the town of Kyaunggon, about 120 kilometres west of the main city of Yangon, came after news spread that a 14-year-old girl had allegedly been raped by a Muslim man. Kyaunggon resident Myint Soe said mobs destroyed the rape suspect's home, as well as the home of another Muslim man elsewhere in the town. Police confirmed the violence and said Kyaunggon was calm yesterday.
Under the country's new democratisation, a poorly trained and ill-equipped police force - made up almost exclusively of Buddhists - is now tasked with dealing with sectarian violence, the army only stepping in at the invitation of civilian authorities or during states of emergency.
The results, on many occasions, have been disastrous.
"From the facts as presented, it appears the police failed to do their job properly," said Jim Della-Giacoma, the Asia programme director for the International Crisis Group, a research organisation.