“They killed my wife and burned down my house” says Burmese Muslim

This satellite image, taken on October 25, shows the portion of the town of Kyaukphyu that was burned to the ground in the recent unrest. Courtesy of Human Rights Watch.
 
The latest wave of ethnic violence between Muslims and Buddhists in western Burma has left at least 67 dead, and forced more than 22,000 people to flee their homes. Among those displaced is our Observer, who now lives in a refugee camp. He told us how he very narrowly escaped an attack on his town, during which his wife was killed.
 
Refugee camps in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, were already filled with Rohingya Muslims after a first round of violence in June, which was reportedly set off by the rape of a Buddhist woman. Tensions remained high, and broke out into violence again last week. Now, the camps are overflowing with new arrivals. According to Human Rights Watch, the Rohingya bore the brunt of the violence.
 
Though many Rohingya have lived in the country for generations, most do not have Burmese citizenship, and are generally considered by others in Burma to be foreigners. They are often called “Bengali”, though neighbouring Bangladesh does not recognise them either, and have repeatedly turned refugees away at the border.
 
The town hardest hit in the latest wave of violence is Kyaukphyu, in southern Rakhine state, where an entire neighbourhood inhabited by Muslims was burned to the ground. A satellite image provided by Human Rights Watch, above, shows the magnitude of the destruction. Many of those that fled Kyaukphyu, including our Observer, are not Rohingya but Kaman, which is a Muslim minority group that is officially recognized by the state. Chris Lewa, director of the Rohingya advocacy group Arakan Project, told Reuters: “It's not just anti-Rohingya violence anymore, it’s anti-Muslim.”
 
Satellite photo of Kyaukphyu taken on March 9, 2012, before the unrest. 
Contributors

“I wanted to take my wife’s body with me, but they kept shooting at us”

U Maung (not his real name), 60, used to live in Kyaukphyu before his house was burned down.
 
When we first heard news of the unrest in Sittwe [in June], I assumed the same thing would eventually happen in Kyaukphyu as well. On October 21, Rakhine Buddhists burnt down two mosques in the Muslim part of my town. The next night, they came back with torches and gas canisters and started burning down the whole area. Men shot at us with hand-made weapons, mostly shooting bicycle spikes. Then, men in plainclothes – but who were clearly security officers – came and started shooting at us with guns. They shot my wife. She died right away. I wanted to take her body with me, but they kept shooting at us. So in the end my children and I had to leave her behind and run down to the river bank. We got into a fishing ship and fled to Sittwe.
 
We arrived in a refugee camp in Sittwe the next day, on the 23rd. It’s incredibly crowded – there were already lots of people that arrived here after the first round of violence. Now there are over 3,000 of us in the camp. Thanks to donations, we have enough food; we cook it ourselves. We’re surviving here, but we’re so afraid. And I miss my wife so much. If the situation calms down, I would like to go home. Since we have nothing left, we would like the government to help us by giving us job opportunities and ensuring our security so that we can try to go back to our lives. However, I heard that we might be moved to other towns, further away.
 
“In the time of the military government, the Buddhists in Rakhine state didn’t dare bully Muslims like this”
 
For a long time, the Buddhists in Rakhine state have hated the Muslims as if it were the most natural thing in the world. In Kyaukphyu, like in the rest of the region, Buddhists and Muslims lived apart from each other, in separate parts of town. Of course, that didn't mean we didn't interact: some of us had Buddhist friends and some are even married to Buddhist people. Children of both the Buddhists and the Muslims attended the same schools. But due to decades of discrimination, Muslims have had less access to economic opportunities, and this has created tensions. I don’t understand why people think we Muslims in Rakhine state are foreigners, even though were born here, just like the rest. In the time of the military government, the Buddhists in Rakhine state didn’t dare bully Muslims like this.

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