THANDWE — Several local Arakanese politicians and community leaders were apprehended in Thandwe Township in recent days in relation to the outbreak of inter-communal violence between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and local Muslim communities.
A Thandwe Arakanese leader, however, has blamed the unrest on “Bengali” Muslims, who he claimed had been coming to the southern Arakan State town and “started the violence.”
“Some people hide inside trucks and secretly came to the town or some came by boats from the sea, secretly, to settle in the town,” said Tun Shwe, a central committee member of the Rakhine National Development Party’s (RNDP) Thandwe office.
He said “more and more” Muslims had come to Thandwe from northern Arakan State, after inter-communal violence in June and October last year affected their communities there.
Most Muslims in northern Arakan call themselves Rohingyas. Burma’s government refuses to recognize the group as citizens and — like local ethnic Arakanese communities — it refers to them as “Bengali” immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The villages in Thandwe Township that suffered from attacks this week, however, are ethnic Kaman Muslims, a group that is officially recognized as a Burmese minority with a recorded history in southern Arakan State.
RNDP member Tun Shwe accepts that the Kaman have long lived in Thandwe, but still he maintains that a supposed influx of “Bengali” Muslims caused the recent violence, although he was unable to explain where this group of newcomers was residing.
“Yes, there are local Muslim inhabitants here. But, [since last year] more Bengalis came to Thandwe,” he claimed.
The anti-Muslim violence in Thandwe Township began on Sunday and was reportedly sparked by an argument between a Buddhist motorbike taxi driver and a Kaman Muslim man.
Between Sunday and Wednesday, more than 100 homes were destroyed in at least five Kaman villages. Six people were reported killed, five injured and hundreds of villagers were forced to flee.
In recent days, Thandwe police have arrested two local RNDP members, including the Thandwe RNDP chairman Maung Pu, in relation with the violence. Two local members of civil society group Protection of Nationality, Religion and Dhamma were also detained.
International human rights groups have previously accused RNDP members, local Buddhist leaders and nationalist Arakanese civil society groups of organizing attacks on Rohingya communities.
In Thandwe, tensions began to rise after Arakanese community groups organized ‘Buddhist Day’ on Aug. 26, an event that attracted tens of thousands of people and hundreds of monks from the area. Members of the Buddhist nationalist 969 movement were also present and actively spread their virulent anti-Muslim messages among the township’s inhabitants.
Tun Shwe denied, however, that the RNDP and local Arakanese community organizations had been whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment in the weeks leading up the violence. “Our party attempted to stop tensions among the people,” he said, adding that, “Our chairman was not involved in the house burning.”
Win Naing, Thandwe representative of the National League for Democracy, the opposition party of Aung San Suu Kyi, said he believed that the local RNDP branch had indeed played an organizing role in the unrest.
“We found that their members were involved in the violence. The authorities should thoroughly interrogate those that they have detained in order to stop this violence,” Win Naing said.