RANGOON — The Thandwe Township Court has sentenced two Muslim men to 15 years in prison for rape, according to police, in a case that acted as a catalyst for the deadly inter-communal violence that has wracked southern Arakan State in recent months.
Rumors that a young Buddhist woman had been raped by an ethnic Kaman Muslim man sparked violence in the area in June that saw four Muslim homes destroyed or razed to the ground.
The relatively minor outbreak of violence preceded events between Sept. 29 and Oct. 3, in which seven people were reportedly killed and scores of homes were torched in Thandwe as Buddhist mobs attacked local Kaman Muslims in seven villages surrounding the coastal town.
Kyaw Aung, a police inspector in Thandwe Township, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that two Muslim men, Min Naing and Naing Thu, were on Oct. 21 found guilty of raping a Buddhist woman in June.
“The court found two the detainees were guilty and sentenced the two of them,” he said, adding that both men were given 15 years in prison.
“We [police] investigated first whether they raped the young girl. Then the court did further investigation and also found that they did it,” said KyawAung.
“We found that they took the girl on their motorbike taxi and raped her after the girl arrived in Thandwe from Gwa Township.”
A Muslim resident in Thandwe, who asked not to be named, contested the police’s account, saying an initial medical examination found the girl had not been raped. However, local Buddhists said that the examination was invalid as it was carried out by a Muslim doctor, and took the girl to nearby Taungup Township where another examination apparently confirmed that she was raped, according to the resident.
Rumors of the alleged incident at the time led to about 50 people surrounding a local police station on June 30 before going on to attack Muslim homes. Authorities brought the situation under control by the following day, but three months later, Thandwe erupted again, leaving 112 homes destroyed and forcing almost 500 Kaman villagers to flee.
At least 78 people were detained after the second round of violence, which swept through Thandwe Township just as President Thein Sein was paying a visit to other parts of Arakan State. Burma’s Home Affairs Ministry later said six suspects had admitted to murder and 28 people had been charged with setting fire to Muslim homes.
In the time between the two outbreaks, inter-communal tensions reportedly grew tense after an Aug. 26 event to celebrate an unofficial “Buddhist day.” The event was led by a community organization linked to U Wirathu, the monk who heads the anti-Muslim 969 movement. After that, residents said, stickers, flags and flyers of the virulently sectarian 969 movement became commonplace in Thandwe.
The situation in the area is now stable, but authorities have made no efforts so far to rebuild Muslim villages, according to people affected in Thapyugyaing village, where about 50 houses were burned down.
“We have food to eat, but we are still afraid that the attackers will come and attack us again,” said San Myint, a Muslim man in Thapyugyaing village.
The events in Thandwe this year followed violence between local Buddhists and stateless Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State last year, which left 192 people dead and about 140,000 people, mostly Muslims, displaced, according to UN and government figures.
Authorities have been accused of supporting the Buddhist mob attacks on Muslim minorities and of doing little to prosecute Buddhist perpetrators of the violence Arakan State, as well as outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence in other parts of the country.