Suspected insurgents killed at least six members of a Buddhist ethnic minority in western Myanmar on Thursday, the government and regional sources said, amid spiralling violence in troubled Rakhine state.
Security forces discovered the bodies of three men and three women bearing machete and gunshot wounds in the Mayu mountain range near the town of Maungdaw, the office of Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said.
In a statement, it said ‘extremists’ were responsible for killing the six members
of the Mro minority from the village of Kaigyi whom residents believe to have stumbled upon a camp for Rohingya Muslim militants.
Muslim-majority Northern Rakhine was plunged into violence last October when Rohingya insurgents killed nine police in coordinated attacks on border guard posts.
In the ensuing military operation, security forces allegedly shot villagers at random, raped Rohingya women and burned down houses. United Nations investigators who interviewed some of the nearly 75,000 people who fled to neighbouring Bangladesh said troops probably committed crimes against humanity.
Suu Kyi is refusing to cooperate with a UN fact-finding mission set up to look into abuses in Rakhine and elsewhere. The government accuses the militants of running training camps in the mountains and killing alleged informants in the Muslim community.
Security forces had begun an ‘intensive clearance operation’ to hunt the killers on Thursday, a military officer in Rakhine said. Two women aged 21 and 34 were still missing from the group that ventured into the hills to tend to farms, said the officer, who sought anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Aung Kyaw Min, a Buddhist resident of Kaigyi, said villagers believed the two women had also been killed because some of their bloody clothing was recovered. ‘We are all suffering from this killing,’ he said. ‘All the villagers are in panic and nobody wants to live there. They all want to move to a safe place arranged by the government.’
Non-Muslim ethic groups recognised as Myanmar citizens are the minority in northern Rakhine. About 1.1 million Rohingya live in the state, but are denied citizenship. Many in Myanmar consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Tension among the communities has been running high in recent weeks, say aid workers and UN officials there. In the town of Rathedaung, south of Maungdaw, troops launched a separate hunt for alleged militants, said the military officer and a human rights monitor with regional sources.
Security forces on Friday opened fire on villagers armed with sticks around the hamlet of Auk Nan Yar, the monitor and a resident said.
Four non-Muslim villagers went missing in the area last week and the mutilated bodies of three Muslims were discovered on Monday.
Meanwhile, religious tensions are on the rise again in Myanmar, after masked assailants attacked young Muslims and nationalists led by Buddhist monks set up protest camps in major cities this week.
While the Muslim minority is buffeted by outbreaks of mob violence and places of worship have been shuttered, a small but vocal group of nationalists say the fledgling government of Aung San Suu Kyi is failing to stand up for the Buddhist majority.
In the early hours of Thursday, a group of about 30 people armed with sticks and swords entered the Muslim-majority Sakya Nwe Sin neighbourhood in the former royal capital, Mandalay, according to a resident.
A local administrator said two young Muslim men were injured, but authorities insisted the incident was not sectarian. ‘That was just a fight between youngsters,’ said police Major Maung Htay. ‘But they were swearing in the quarter so it sounded like insulting the quarter’s residents.’
However, Mandalay residents said the incident had stirred fears of a repeat of deadly communal violence that hit the same neighbourhood in 2014. Mandalay and other central towns have seen sporadic outbreaks of communal violence since Myanmar’s transition from full military rule began in 2011.
Nearly 200 people died and tens of thousands of people – mostly Rohingya Muslims – were displaced in 2012 in Rakhine state. Violence escalated there last year after attacks on border posts by Rohingya militants.
In a letter to Suu Kyi on Thursday, 20 groups working on human rights in Myanmar said the government needed to do more to protect Muslims, who make up 4.3 per cent of the population. ‘The Burma government must not appease the ultra-nationalists who are utilizing hate speech, intimidation, and violence to promote fear in Muslim communities across the country,’ said the letter.
‘It is extremely alarming to see how anti-Muslim sentiment has spread beyond Rakhine state, where the Rohingya Muslim minority has been harshly persecuted and isolated, even to major cities like Yangon.’
In several recent cases, local officials have bowed to nationalist pressure to shut down Muslim buildings that they say are operating without official approval.
Two madrassahs were shuttered in May in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon. Local media reported the closure of a mosque and another Islamic school in Oatkan, on Yangon’s outskirts, this week.
Authorities in Kyaukpadaung, central Myanmar – famed for not accepting non-Buddhist residents – last month agreed to demolish a structure that was falsely suspected of being a mosque.
On Wednesday, small groups of monks with dozens of lay supporters set up two so-called ‘boycott camps’ close to country’s most important Buddhist site, the Shwedagon pagoda, and at a Mandalay pagoda just blocks from the mob attack later that night.
Behind banners accusing Suu Kyi’s administration of failing to protect Buddhism, the monks upturned their alms bowls – a traditional symbol of defiance against the country’s rulers.
The government-backed Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee – a panel of senior monks – called for monks to stop participating in the ‘inappropriate’ demonstrations, state media reported on Friday.
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