International

Myanmar: Buddhist group attacks Muslims

NGO says dozens may have been killed, while government denies attacks on religious minority in remote part of country

A Muslim barber gives a customer a haircut at a roadside barber shop as a street vendor sells vegetables in The' Chaung village in Rakhine state, Myanmar on Jan. 17, 2014. The’ Chaung houses camps for displaced Muslims following sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims.
Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

More than a dozen people may have been killed after a Buddhist group rampaged through a town in an isolated corner of Myanmar, hacking Muslim women and children with knives, a rights group reported Friday.

A government official said the situation was tense but denied any deaths.

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people, has been grappling with sectarian violence for nearly two years. More than 240 people have been killed and another 250,000, mostly Muslims, forced to flee their homes.

Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, an advocacy group that documents abuses against members of the Rohingya Muslim minority, told The Associated Press that details about the violence that occurred early Tuesday morning in northern Rakhine state were still emerging, with many conflicting reports.

It is one of the most isolated regions in the country, both politically and geographically, and access to foreigners is denied or severely restricted. The death toll could range anywhere between 10 and 60, said Lewa, whose sources range from a village administrator to witnesses.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which runs a nearby clinic, said it was concerned that residents who fled the area may need medical care.

"MSF confirms that on Wednesday it saw two wounded people suffering from injuries inflicted as a result of violence — one from a gunshot wound and the other exhibiting injuries consistent with a beating,"  Peter-Paul de Groote, head of MSF's Myanmar mission, told Reuters.

Religious minority

Tensions have been building in the region since last month, when monks from a Buddhist extremist movement known as 969 toured the area and gave sermons by loudspeaker advocating the expulsion of all Rohingya, who make up 90 percent of the population in northern Rakhine. It's the only place where the religious minority is in the majority.

A volunteer English teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals said an initial flare-up followed the discovery of three bodies in a ditch near Du Char Yar Tan village.

Villagers alerted the friends and neighbors of a group of eight Rohingya who went missing after being detained by authorities days earlier, and a group returned to the bodies with cell phones to take pictures, the teacher said.

When police went to the village to confiscate the phones and check family lists, a crowd turned on the officers, beating and chasing them off, the English teacher said. The police returned at 2 a.m., saying one of their men had gone missing, he said, which triggered a security crackdown.

Soldiers and police surrounded the village, breaking down doors and looting livestock and other valuables. Almost all the men fled, leaving the women, children and elderly behind, he said.

Lewa said her sources reported that Rohingya women and children had been hacked to death, but the numbers varied widely. Some put the death toll as low as five or 10, but one source who works for the administration in Maungdaw town said it is widely believed 40 died, mostly women and children.

That some of the victims appeared to have been stabbed with knives, not shot or beaten, "would clearly indicate the massacre was committed by (Buddhist) Rakhine villagers, rather than the police or army," the Arakan Project wrote in a briefing Thursday.

The English teacher, who spoke by telephone, said 17 women and five children were killed.

Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said police had surrounded the village because they were looking for the policeman who went missing, but that he was not aware that anyone had been killed.

Khin Maung Than, a Muslim who lives in a neighboring village, said he visited Du Char Yar Tan and had seen no evidence of violence or deaths there.

Tensions have been reported for days, but getting information is difficult. Northern Rakhine, which is home to 80 percent of the country's 1 million Rohingya, runs along the Bay of Bengal and is cut off from the rest of the country by a mountain range.

Some of the people there descend from families that have been there generations. Others arrived more recently from neighboring Bangladesh. All have been denied citizenship, rendering them stateless.

For decades, they have been unable to travel freely, practice their religion, or work as teachers or doctors. They need special approval to marry and are the only people in the country barred from having more than two children.

Wire services

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter