THANDWE TOWNSHIP, Arakan State — Sitting on the floor of a Buddhist monastery, 85-year-old Ma Hla, an ethnic Arakanese Buddhist, is homeless, although she doesn’t realize it yet.
Her son says he did not want to worry his aging mother by explaining that her house was burned to the ground last week during four days of communal violence in villages near the town of Thandwe in west Burma’s Arakan State. In Thapyu Kyain, the hardest-hit village, 52 homes were torched. Forty-one of them belonged to Muslims, says a local abbot, but Buddhists were also victims.
“I have six children—three men and three women,” Ma Hla says. “I was born here, and I have eight acres of paddy land.”
Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims last week near Thandwe destroyed more than 100 homes total and three religious buildings, likely mosques, according to state media. The fighting followed anti-Muslim riots earlier this year in several locations across Burma, as well as communal violence between both religious groups in other parts of Arakan State last year in June and October. The vast majority of victims last year were Rohingya Muslims, who are largely denied citizenship by the government.
After the clashes last week, U Binya Zaota, a Buddhist abbot, is sheltering dozens of displaced Buddhists at his monastery in Thapyu Kyain. He says Buddhists and Muslims lived peacefully until last year.
Like other Buddhists in the area, he suggests the idea of segregating Kaman Muslims in a separate village, much like the Rohingyas have been largely restricted to their villages or camps for internally displace persons. Unlike the Rohingyas, the Kaman are recognized as citizens by the government.
“If they change their mindsets, they can stay in this community,” the abbot adds.
Five Muslims were killed in fighting last week in Thapyu Kyain, while one Arakanese Buddhist went missing from nearby Shwe Hlay village and three Buddhists were wounded.
As with past cases of communal violence, security forces were called to restore order but were subsequently accused of standing back while violence ensued.
Over the weekend, Burma Army troops remained stationed in Thapyu Kyain. They did not allow The Irrawaddy to speak in length with Kaman Muslim leaders, although a colonel gave permission to conduct uninterrupted interviews at the local Buddhist monastery.
“The Arakanese burned Muslim homes first, actually,” the colonel says. “Muslim people did not provoke anything, they were innocent in the beginning. But we found out later that they reacted by burning the houses of Arakanese.”
He says Kaman Muslims made efforts in the past to blend in among their Buddhist-majority neighbors, by doing away with traditional Muslim homes found elsewhere in the state. “The housing style of Muslims is almost the same as that of the Arakanese here,” he says.
San Nyint, a Muslim guide, points to homes that were razed in the fighting and says Muslims and Buddhists in the village were friends before. “Muslims here are educated. We tried to be flexible with our neighbors, and we did not have any problems in the past,” he says.
Some Kaman Muslim leaders wearing T-shirts of the Kaman National Party blamed the clashes on radical Arakanese from Zin Khun village, about three miles from Thapyu Kyain. They said these Arakanese were originally from a township north of Thandwe known as Taungkup, where Buddhists and Muslims clashed last year.
“They came from Taungkup after their houses were burned down in last year’s violence,” a 50-year-old Kaman leader said. “They have a bitter mind toward Muslims, and that’s why they came to burn our houses.”
In Taungkup, before the violence first broke out in June, four Kaman Muslims were killed by Buddhists while riding on a bus after rumors spread that a Buddhist woman had been raped by Muslim men.
As of Sunday, authorities in Thandwe Township had detained 37 Arakanese and 11 Kaman, according to police officer Nyi Nyi Htay. “We are still arresting people,” he said.
More than 100 Muslims in the village were homeless, and most were staying with relatives who had not been displaced. One home in the Muslim quarter was packed with about 30 people.
The abbot U Binya Zaota said his monastery was sheltering 45 displaced Buddhists and had received a donation of rice from the government, but added that they were still in need of food and clothing.
Maung Maung Lay, a displaced Arakanese resident, said he could no longer trust his Muslim neighbors. “I feel safer staying in the monastery at the moment, because I know who burned my house,” he said, echoing calls to create a separate village for the Kaman.
Another Arakanese resident, Sein Tun, likened the Kaman to the Rohingyas, who are widely seen by the Arakanese as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. “The Kaman and Bengali [Rohingyas] are not different,” he says. “They have a similar mind. They became wild after the case of Taungkup happened.”
San Nyint, the Muslim guide, hopes these calls for segregation do not amount to anything. He says he wants to stay in Thapyu Kyain, the village where he was born. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a special village for Muslims,” he says. “We cannot build trust again if we stay divided. I want to stay in my village.”