The Muslims of Sit Kwin were always a small group who numbered no more than 100 of the village’s 2,000 people, but as sectarian violence led by Buddhist mobs spreads across central Myanmar, they and many other Muslims are disappearing.
Their homes, shops and mosques destroyed, some end up in refugee camps or hide in the homes of friends or relatives. Dozens have been killed.
“We don’t know where they are,” says Aung Ko Myint, 24, a taxi driver in Sit Kwin, a farming village where Buddhists on Friday ransacked a store owned by the town’s last remaining Muslim. “He escaped this morning just before the mob got here.”
Forty-two people were killed in violence that erupted in Meiktila town on March 20, while unrest led by hardline Buddhists has spread to at least 10 other towns and villages in central Myanmar, with the latest incidents only about a two-hour drive from the commercial capital, Yangon.
The crowds are fired up by anti-Muslim rhetoric spread over the Internet and by word of mouth from monks preaching a movement known as “969.” The three numbers refer to various attributes of the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood, but it has come to represent a radical form of anti-Islamic nationalism which urges Buddhists to boycott Muslim-run shops and services.
Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, but about 5 percent of its 60 million people are Muslims. There are large Muslim communities in Yangon, Mandalay and towns across Myanmar’s heartland where the religions have co-existed for generations. However, as violence spreads from village to village, the unleashing of ethnic hatred, suppressed during 49 years of military rule that ended in March 2011, is challenging the reformist government of one of Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries.
Dusk-to-dawn curfews are in effect in many areas of Bago, the region where Sit Kwin lies, while four townships in central Myanmar are under a state of emergency imposed last week.
“I will not hesitate to use force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of the general public,” Burmese President Thein Sein said in a nationally televised speech on Thursday, warning “political opportunists and religious extremists” against instigating further violence.
The unrest has made almost 13,000 people homeless, according to the UN. State-run media reports 68 people have been arrested.
The trouble in Sit Kwin had begun four days before, when people riding 30 motorbikes drove through town urging villagers to expel Muslim residents, witnesses said. They then trashed a mosque and a row of Muslim shops and houses.
“They came with anger that was born from rumors,” said one man who declined to be identified.
Further south, police in Letpadan have stepped up patrols in the farming village of 22,000 people about 160km from Yangon.
Three monks led a 30-strong group toward a mosque on Friday. Police dispersed the crowd, many of whom carried knives and staves, and briefly detained two people. They were later released at the request of township officials, police said.
“I won’t let it happen again,” police commander Phone Myint said. “The president yesterday gave the police authority to control the situation.”
The abbot who led the protest, Khamainda, said he took to the streets after hearing rumors passed by other monks by telephone, about violence between Buddhists and Muslims in other towns. He said he wanted revenge against Muslims for the destruction by the Taliban of Buddhist statues in Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan in 2001.
“There is no problem with the way they live, but they are the minority and we are the majority. And when the minority insults our religion, we get concerned,” he told reporters. “We will come out again if we get a chance.”
Letpadan villagers fear the tension will explode.
“I’m sure they will come back and destroy the mosque,” says Aung San Kyaw, 35, a Muslim. “We’ve never experienced anything like this.”
Across the street, Hla Tan, a 67-year-old Buddhist, shares the fear.
“We have lived peacefully for years. Nothing can happen between us unless outsiders come. But if they come, I know we can’t stop them,” he said.
North of Sit Kwin, the farming town of Minhla endured about three hours of violence on both Wednesday and Thursday.
About 300 people, many from the nearby village of Ye Kyaw, gathered on Wednesday afternoon. The crowd swelled to about 800 as townsfolk joined, a Minhla policeman said. They then destroyed three mosques and 17 shops and houses, he said. No Buddhist monks were involved, witnesses said.
The mob carried sticks, metal pipes and hammers, said Hla Soe, 60, a Buddhist who runs an electrical repair shop in Minhla.
“No one could stop them,” he said.
About 200 soldiers and police eventually intervened to restore a fragile peace.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar said on Thursday he had received reports of “state involvement” in the recent violence at Meiktila.
Soldiers and police sometimes stood by “while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organized ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs,” said the rapporteur, Tomas Ojea Quintana. “This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the state or implicit collusion and support for such actions.”
Ye Htut, a presidential spokesman and deputy minister of information, called those accusations “groundless.”