Thandwe Tense But Calm, As Police Detain Arakan Leaders

By Htet Naing Zaw & Khin Oo Tha 3 October 2013

RANGOON — After four days of inter-communal violence in Thandwe Township, southern Arakan State, the situation appeared to have calmed down on Thursday and no further anti-Muslim attacks were reported, local police said, adding that at least 102 homes were destroyed during the unrest.

Two local Arakanese Buddhist leaders were detained by the police in relation to the outbreak of the anti-Muslim violence.

A Thandwe police officer said 102 houses were destroyed in three Muslim villages of Thapyu Kyain, Pauktaw and Mae Kyun, adding that six people had died there during the unrest, including one elderly man who suffered a heart attack.

“Today, things have calmed down. The police is in control of everything now, we are keeping an eye on the situation,” said the officer, who declined to be named as he was unauthorized to speak with the media.

“We are trying hard to impose rule of law,” he said. “Both the armed forces and security forces of Thandwe have been on standby in downtown and also in villages to create peace and stability.”

The officer said, however, that only 80 policemen and soldiers had been deployed in the area to prevent further outbreaks of violence in the town and surrounding villages.

Nyi Lay, a Muslim villager from Thapyu Kyain, said all residents had fled the village after a Buddhist mob attacked the settlement. He said about 40 villagers had fled to a nearby Muslim village called Lin Thee, located about one mile away, while another 30 people escaped to another village called Pyin Yong.

“Now, I’m afraid to go back to my home village. Because they are waiting to attack me,” he told The Irrawaddy by phone from Lin Thee.

Two Irrawaddy reporters travelling through villages in Thandwe Township observed that tensions remained high on Thursday. In Pauktaw village Arakanese villagers armed with knives and sticks were seen walking around amid burned down houses, while several unarmed police and soldiers guarded a dozen or so scared Muslim villagers.

Police officers and a local NLD representative told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that five Muslim villages had suffered attacks by Buddhist mobs carrying swords and machetes, and dozens of homes and several mosques were destroyed. Hundreds of Muslim villagers have been forced to flee their homes and some fled to a nearby forest.

Five Arakanese Buddhists were reportedly seriously injured when they were attacked by a group of Muslims on Wednesday as they were travelling on the road from Taungup to Thandwe.

Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) spokesperson Khine Pyi Soe said authorities had detained six local Arakanese Buddhist leaders on Wednesday in order to question them about their possible involvement in the anti-Muslim violence.

He said two local RNDP members, including Thandwe RNDP chairman Maung Pu, were being questioned, adding that two members from a Buddhist community organization called Protection of Nationality, Religion and Dhamma, and three other Thandwe residents had also been brought to the police station.

“Two policemen took Maung Pu, saying they had to talk to him. We called the state police chief police to ask why they arrested them and also where they are detaining them, but they said that they don’t know,” Khine Pyi Soe said.

“If we don’t get any information about them in the next 24 hours, we will take legal action,” he said. “Police arrested them because maybe they think that they were linked to the violence that happened in Thandwe.”

International human rights groups have accused local leaders from the RNDP and community organizations of planning deadly attacks on Rohingya Muslim communities in northern Arakan State last year, with the aim of ethnically cleansing Rohingyas from these areas.

In Thandwe, the violence began after a Buddhist motorbike taxi driver became embroiled in an argument with a local Muslim leader in Thandwe town on Sunday. Buddhist mobs later crowded the Muslim leader’s his house and pelted it with stones. At night, two Muslim-owned were houses burned down and subsequently the violence spread through villages surrounding the town.

The unrest in Thandwe has coincided with President Thein Sein’s first official visit to Arakan State since deadly, inter-communal violence broke out in June 2012. The president visited Sittwe, Kyaukphyu and Maungdaw townships on Tuesday and Thandwe on Wednesday, where he met with local Buddhist and Muslim leaders. Thein Sein left Arakan State on Thursday morning.

Senior officials accompanied the president and on Wednesday Defense Minister Lt-Gen Hla Min and Chief of general staff Gen Hla Htay, along with Arakan State ministers and state lawmakers, visited some of the affected Muslim villages, where they provided villagers with aid support.

A government statement released on Thursday said authorities “will take measures for bringing an end to the conflicts as quick as possible, bringing rioters to trial in accordance with the law and rebuilding the houses which were burnt down.”

US, UK and UN officials have released statements in the past two days expressing concern about the violence and calling on the Burmese government to intervene to immediately end the violence and protect local communities.

More than 100,000 people live in Thandwe, a coastal town in southern Arakan State. The town has an airport that is used by tourists visiting the popular beach resort Ngapali, located nearby.

Thandwe has a large Muslim community, which comprises mostly ethnic Kaman and other recognized Muslim minorities. In northern Arakan State, the Muslim population call themselves Rohingyas. The latter group is not recognized as Burmese citizens, and the government refers to the group as “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh.

Burma’s central government and Arakan State authorities have been accused of doing little to prevent Buddhist mob attacks on the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities, and of tacitly supporting the Buddhist perpetrators.

Thandwe Township was largely spared from the bloody inter-communal violence that broke out in Sittwe, Maungdaw and other northern townships in June and October 2012 between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingyas.

During last year’s violence, 192 people were killed and about 140,000 people were displaced, most of them Muslims. Many continue to live in dirty, crowded camps where they live under numerous government restrictions.