RANGOON — Inter-communal violence broke out between Buddhist and Muslim residents of at least three villages of Thandwe Township, southern Arakan State, on Tuesday morning. According to initial reports, more than 35 houses were burned down and a mosque was destroyed, and one elderly Muslim woman was stabbed to death.
The violence comes as President Thein Sein makes his first official visit to the strife-torn region in western Burma.
The groups clashed in Thapyu Kyain village, a Muslim fishing village located about 15 miles (25 km) from Thandwe town, local National League for Democracy representative Win Naing said.
“I heard that 35 houses were burned down in Thapyu Kyain village,” he told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday afternoon. “The violence has now spread to another Muslim village named Pauktaw. These villages are 2 miles apart.”
“Pauktaw has been burned down already,” Win Naing said, adding that he did not know how many homes were destroyed in the village.
The Associated Press reported on Tuesday evening that a total of 70 homes were destroyed by mobs in Thandwe Township.
A local policeman in Thandwe said a group of attackers had set fire to 28 houses in Thapyu Kyain village at around 10:15 am on Tuesday morning. “Our police stopped the fire at 11:50 am,” he added.
The officer estimated that “between 800 and 1,000 people” were involved in an attack on the Muslim village, adding that security forces had arrived there late Tuesday morning to end the unrest.
“We fired [warning] shots into the air and the crowd ran away,” said the officer, who declined to be named as he was unauthorized to speak to the media.
He said an old woman who was unable to flee had been killed by the attackers after they suddenly entered the village on Tuesday morning.
“She was stabbed in four places, on the left and right side of her body,” the officer said, adding that the victim was Aye Kyi, a 94-year-old Muslim woman. “Now, we open a murder case at the court. She was Kaman Muslim,” he added.
The officer said that in another village called Kyauk Gyi, located about 25 miles (40 km) from Thandwe town, mobs had destroyed a mosque on Monday night.
The officer said a curfew had been announced in Thandwe Township barring residents from leaving their homes between 6 pm to 6 am. “This is because of the tense situation in the town,” he added.
There were no initial reports about deaths or injuries during the violence.
A Muslim resident of Thandwe named Lu Lay said Thapyu Kyain village had first been attacked at around 3 am Tuesday morning by an unidentified group of rioters, who tried to torch some of the homes.
When Muslim residents approached the group fighting broke out, he said, adding that the attackers returned to the village on Tuesday morning and more clashes ensued.
A Muslim shop owner Bay Dar in Thandwe’s main market said the unrest had spread fear among the town’s inhabitants, who had closed their shops and markets on Tuesday.
“All Buddhists and Muslim-owned shops have been shut down. The town is very quiet, not many people are walking on the streets,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Bay Dar said he was planning to move the electrical equipment that he sells out of his shop as he feared it could be destroyed if unrest escalates. “I saw some people driving around on motorbikes near my shop and they were looking very aggressive. That’s why I’m moving my goods from my shop,” he said.
On Sunday night, two Muslim-owned houses had already been burned down in Thandwe town’s Quarter No. 3. The violence began after local residents threw stones at a Muslim man’s house as he had become embroiled in a dispute with a Buddhist taxi driver.
Win Naing said he believed that “local residents and some outsiders were involved in these attacks” on Sunday night.
In late June, inter-communal unrest also broke out in Thandwe and four Muslim-owned homes were destroyed and several cars damaged.
More than 100,000 people live in Thandwe, a coastal town in southern Arakan State, and in the town and surrounding villages half of the population is estimated to be Muslim. The town has an airport that is used by tourists visiting the popular beach resort Ngapali, located nearby.
The unrest comes during the first visit of President Thein Sein to Burma’s troubled western region since inter-communal broke out in June 2012.
The president arrived in the Arakan State capital Sittwe on Tuesday and was due to visit Mrauk-U town, the Associated Press reports.
NLD representative Win Naing said Thein Sein had also been expected to visit Thandwe on Wednesday.
“The township authorities had been preparing for the visit. They put up decorations along the streets,” he said, adding that residents hoped that the visit would continue and that it would help end the violence.
The Muslim population of Thandwe comprises mostly Kaman and other recognized Muslim minorities, unlike in northern Arakan State, which has a large Muslim population who identify themselves as Rohingyas. The latter group is not recognized by the government as Burmese citizens.
Thandwe Township was largely spared from the bloody inter-communal violence that broke out in Sittwe, Maungdaw and other townships further north one year ago, where Arakanese Buddhists clashed with Rohingya Muslims.
During last year’s outbreak of violence, 192 people were killed and about 140,000 people were displaced, most of them Muslims. About half of the displaced were Muslim residents who were chased out of the Arakan State capital Sittwe by local Buddhist Arakanese groups. Most of the displaced continue to reside in squalid, crowded camps.
This story was updated at around 6 pm, October 1, 2013.