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Myanmar Muslims recount terrifying tale of exodus

Monday December 31, 2012 07:57:23 PM, IINA

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Sin Thet Maw: Stranded beside their decrepit flotilla of wooden boats, on a muddy beach far from home, the Muslim refugees tell story after terrifying story of their exodus from a once-peaceful town on Myanmar’s western coast, The Associated Press reported.

They were attacked one quiet evening, they say, by Buddhist mobs determined to expel them from the island port of Kyaukphyu. There were chaotic clashes and gruesome killings, and a wave of arson strikes so intense that flames eventually engulfed their entire neighborhood. In the end, all they could do was run. So they piled into 70 or 80 fishing boats — some 4,000 souls in all — and fled into the sea.

In those final moments, many caught one last dizzying glimpse of the town they grew up in — of a sky darkened by smoke billowing from a horizon of burning homes, of beaches filled with seething Buddhist throngs who had spent the day pelting their departing boats with slingshot-fired iron darts.


The October 24 exodus was part of a wave of violence that has shaken western Myanmar twice in the last six months. Although many Rohingya have lived here for generations, they are widely seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and most are denied citizenship.

Similar mass expulsions have happened twice before under the country’s former army rulers. But the fact that they are occurring again now, during Myanmar’s much-praised transition to democratic rule, is particularly troubling.


Both reformist President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, have condemned the violence. Yet neither has defended the Rohingya, even though Muslims account for roughly two-thirds of the 200 dead, 95 percent of the 115,000 displaced and 90 percent of the homes destroyed so far, according to government statistics.

Kyaukphyu was significant because those expelled from there included another Muslim minority, the Kaman, whose right to citizenship is recognized. That they too were targeted raises fears the conflict is spreading to Myanmar’s wider 4 percent Muslim minority.


“We never thought this could happen to us,” said Kyaw Thein, a 48-year-old Kaman who fled Kyaukphyu and is now a refugee in the island village of Sin Thet Maw. “We don’t feel safe anymore, even here,” he said. “Who says we won’t be attacked again?”

Hla Win, a 23-year-old mother of two, was eating a dinner of fish curry and rice with her family when she heard shouting outside. It was 7 p.m., and the attacks had begun on East Pikesake district, where most of Kyaukphyu’s Muslim fishing community lives. Her husband, a 26-year-old fisherman named Maung Lay, joined a group of men struggling to douse flames leaping from a mosque with plastic buckets of water. Security forces posted nearby ordered them to move back, and one opened fire, killing Maung Lay, according to several witnesses.

Rare amateur video of that night, seen by The Associated Press, shows Buddhist mobs armed with long sticks or spears and hurling jars of burning gasoline toward homes swamped in bright orange flames as men shout in the darkness: “Throw! Throw!” and “Watch out!”


In another clip, attackers can be seen flinging firebombs over a wall into more burning houses. They crouch behind rectangular shields of corrugated iron sheeting which are being pelted with rocks, presumably by Muslims defending themselves.

As the night wore on, the adversaries wrapped bandannas around their foreheads — red for Buddhists, white for Muslims.


Buddhists say the Muslims are foreigners who came to seize land and spread the Islamic faith. Muslims say they settled here long ago, legally, and suffer widespread discrimination.



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