TODD PITMAN | AP
Published — Wednesday 1 May 2013
Last update 8 May 2013 8:24 pm
OKKAN, Myanmar: They slept terrified in the fields, watching their homes burn through the night. And when they returned on Wednesday, nothing was left but smoldering ash and debris.
One day after hundreds of Buddhists armed with bricks stormed a clutch of Muslim villages in the closest explosion of sectarian violence yet to Myanmar’s main city, Yangon, newly displaced Muslims combed through the wasteland of their wrecked lives. Unable to go home, they faced an uncertain future — too fearful of more attacks even to leave.
“We ran into the fields and didn’t carry anything with us,” Hla Myint, a 47-year-old father of eight, said after the mobs overran his village.
Tears welling in his eyes, he added, “Now, we have nothing left.”
Thet Lwin, a deputy commissioner of police for the region, put the casualty toll from Tuesday’s assaults at one dead and nine injured. He said police have detained 18 attackers who destroyed 157 homes and shops and at least two mosques in the town of Okkan, 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Yangon, and three outlying villages.
The unrest was the first reported since late March, when similar Buddhist-led violence swept the town of Meikthila, further north in central Myanmar, killing at least 43 people. It underscored the failure of reformist President Thein Sein’s government to curb increasing attacks on minority Muslims in a nation struggling to emerge from half a century of oppressive military rule.
Muslim residents said a mixture of local villagers and people from nearby areas were responsible for the attacks around Okkan. Police gave no details on who was behind the assaults. But a local politician from the pro-government National Union party, Myint Thein, said members of a Buddhist campaign called “969” were involved.
The movement, which urges Buddhists to shop only at Buddhist stores and avoid marrying, hiring or selling their homes or land to Muslims, is small but has spread rapidly in recent months, and human rights activists say it has helped fuel anti-Muslim violence.
Stickers and signs bearing the 969 emblem — each digit enumerates virtues of the Lord Buddha, his teachings and the community of monks — have been popping up on shops, taxis, and buses in numerous towns and cities, including Yangon.
Hla Myint said that after the March violence, residents of Okkan began conducting informal security patrols to protect the village. But nothing happened for weeks and authorities told them not to worry.
“Things happened unexpectedly,” he told The Associated Press. “When the crowds came, they shouted things like ‘Don’t defend yourselves, we will only destroy the mosque, not your homes, we won’t harm you.’“
They burned his village’s mosque, whose corrugated iron roof lay crumpled on the ground between the building’s charred walls, and “they destroyed our houses” anyway, he said.
Around 300 police stood guard Wednesday in the area, which was quiet. Debris from trashed shops in Okkan spilled into dirt roadsides. The town’s market was crowded, but Muslims were absent.
It was not immediately clear what would happen to the newly displaced in Okkan. Some were taking refuge in the few houses that were not razed; others simply sat in the open, under the shade of trees.
Several Muslims said they didn’t feel safe, but would not leave because they feared more attacks elsewhere. They wondered how they would survive and get food.
Hla Aung, a 39-year-old Muslim who lost his home in the violence, said police did nothing to protect him — echoing reports of idle security forces in Meikhtila and elsewhere. “They didn’t help us. They did not do anything. That’s why it’s really difficult to trust them.”
Aung Myint, 46, who lives in a predominantly Buddhist area nearby that was undamaged, said several men from his village were beaten after they tried to convince the attackers to stop. “We didn’t dare to help them because we were worried for our own security,” he said.
Stopping the spread of sectarian violence has proven a major challenge for Thein Sein’s government since it erupted in western Rakhine state last year. Human rights groups have recently accused his administration of failing to crack down on Buddhist extremists as violence has spread closer to Yangon, at times overwhelming riot police who have stood by as machete-wielding crowds attacked Muslims and their property.
Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused authorities in Rakhine state — including Buddhist monks, local politicians and government officials, and state security forces — of fomenting an organized campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya. Hundreds of people were killed there, and some 125,000 people, mostly Muslims, remain displaced with large swathes of the state effectively segregated along sectarian lines.
On Monday, a government-appointed commission investigating the Rakhine violence issued proposals to ease tensions there — including doubling the number of security forces in the volatile region and introducing family planning programs to stem population growth among minority Muslims.
Muslims account for about 4 percent of the nation’s roughly 60 million people. About one third of the nation’s population consists of ethnic minority groups, and most have waged wars against the government for autonomy.
Pitman reported from Bangkok. Associated Press video journalist Raul Gallego Abellan in Okkan contributed to this report.