Violence Between Buddhists and Muslims in Western Myanmar Kills Six

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BANGKOK -- A resurgence of religious violence in western Myanmar this week has left six Muslims dead and dozens of homes destroyed, a senior police officer said Wednesday.

The deaths and the torching of houses in and around the city of Thandwe occurred on Tuesday, just hours before President U Thein Sein arrived in the restive area on Wednesday as part of a scheduled visit to cool religious tensions and criticize "extremism."

"There are casualties and damage on both sides," Mr. Thein Sein said on state television.

But according to accounts from the police officer and a villager who witnessed some of the fighting, the violence followed a disturbingly familiar pattern: sword-wielding Buddhist mobs rampaging through Muslim neighborhoods.

"All the people who were found dead were from the Muslim community," said Lt. Col. U Kyaw Tint, a police officer in Thandwe.

After flaring up last year in western Myanmar, anti-Muslim violence has spread to a number of areas around the country this year, leaving dozens of people killed, almost all of them Muslims and some of them children. Buddhist nationalist groups have called for a boycott of Muslim shops, and radical Buddhist monks have stoked anti-Muslim feelings in sermons across the country.

The International Crisis Group, a research organization, released a report this week saying that more clashes between Buddhists and Muslims were likely because of "the depth of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, and the inadequate response of the security forces."

Colonel Kyaw Tint said tensions remained high between Buddhists and Muslims around Thandwe; the police have imposed a curfew, he said.

U Nyi Lay, a Muslim and grocery store owner in Thandwe, said Buddhist mobs attacked his neighborhood and set fire to houses.

"We defended ourselves with whatever we had," Mr. Nyi Lay said. Police officers fired their weapons into the air to try to disperse the attackers and told villagers to stay inside their houses, he said.

"We are living in fear," Mr. Nyi Lay said.

Hatred and mistrust are especially deep between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh. Last year, more than 150 people were killed and well over 100,000 were forced from their homes in the state. The majority of the victims and those displaced were Rohingya, an ethnic group numbering around one million people that is not officially recognized in Myanmar and whose members have been largely denied citizenship.

But unlike last year's violence, which largely occurred in areas closer to the Bangladesh border, the attacks this week were on well-established Muslim neighborhoods farther south that have existed side by side with Buddhists for generations.

"This kind of violence was never happened in Thandwe before," said Colonel Kyaw Tint. Many of the Muslims in and around Thandwe are from the Kaman ethnic group, which, unlike the Rohingya group, is recognized by the Burmese government.

Officials in Rakhine do not hide their disdain for Muslims. A spokesman for the Rakhine State government, U Win Myaing, blamed this week's violence on Muslims but did not offer specifics.

"You can see in all the recent conflicts that Bengalis sparked the incidents," he said using the government's preferred term for Rohingya. "The problems always begin with them."

Wai Moe contributed reporting from Chiang Mai, Thailand.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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