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Originally published Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 5:24 AM

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Myanmar Muslims recall Buddhist assault

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.

Associated Press

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SIN THET MAW, Myanmar —

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.

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 Oct. 24 exodus was part of a wave of violence that has shaken western Myanmar twice in the last six months. But what began with a series of skirmishes that pitted ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingya, a Muslim minority, appears to have evolved into something far more disturbing: a region-wide effort by Buddhists to drive Muslims out with such ferocious shows of hatred that they could never return.

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.

For Myanmar, also called Burma, the town symbolizes the country's hopes of scoring a piece of the Asian economic surge. China is building a deep-water port and an oil pipeline terminal there.

"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?"

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The unrest in Rakhine state was triggered by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in late May, allegedly by three Rohingya men. But the crisis stems from something that goes back much further: a dispute over when Muslims first settled here, and who among them qualifies for citizenship.

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. The issue has been exacerbated by exploding population growth and what rights groups say is open racism against the darker-skinned Rohingya, who have South Asian roots.

The Kaman, numbering perhaps only in the tens of thousands, are said to be descended from archers who once guarded a Mughal king. The Rohingya number at least 800,000 by U.N. estimates, and they have long been unwanted here.

In 1977, Myanmar's military rulers, together with residents and local authorities, drove 200,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, where 12,000 starved to death and most of the rest were forced back to Myanmar by the Bangladeshi government. A similar horror played out in 1991, when Myanmar's army drove out 250,000 Rohingya.

After the June violence, prominent Buddhist monks issued written warnings against doing business with the Rohingya, or even speaking to them. Rohingya were kept away from schools, markets, even hospitals. Security forces restricted their movement, particularly around their refugee camps. International groups were threatened for providing aid.

Then, in October, there were demonstrations against plans by the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference to establish a liaison office in the state capital, Sittwe. One such march, in Kyaukphyu, brought out thousands.

The rally spooked the Muslims who are roughly 6,000 of the town's 25,000 people. Rumors spread of an imminent new wave of arson attacks. Captains anchored their boats close to shore. One Muslim woman, Yeak Thai Ma, said some local officials began telling Muslims, "this place is no longer for you."

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On Oct. 21, western Myanmar was hit with its second major spasm of violence. Within days, it had spread to nine of Rakhine state's 17 townships.

Unlike the June unrest, which had displaced 24,000 Rakhine and 28,000 Rohingya in the first week - the vast majority of the 35,000 refugees this time were Muslim, and 97 percent of property losses were Rohingya, compared with 78 percent in June, according to government statistics.

Human Rights Watch says anti-Muslim assaults were organized by Rakhine groups, at times with support from security forces and local government officials. The government denies the charges.

There were indications the violence was coordinated; on a single day, three major Muslim neighborhoods came under attack.

One of them, the village of Yin Thei in Mrauk-U township, was overrun Oct. 23 by thousands of Rakhine armed with swords and spears. They slaughtered dozens of people who were buried in mass graves, according to Human Rights Watch. Satellite images of the village show almost nothing left but ashes.

The same day, farther south, several hundred Rakhine descended on Pauktaw by boat and forced the entire Rohingya population to flee, the rights group said. An AP team that traveled there confirmed two seaside Muslim neighborhoods were charred along with a mosque that was apparently finished off with sledgehammers.

That night, it was Kyaukphyu's turn.

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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.

It is not clear what effort, if any, was made to stop the arson attacks. The video shows armed security forces walking among large crowds of Buddhists as fires burn, doing nothing to halt them.

In one scene, a policeman or soldier orders a Muslim mob to back away as fires burn on one side of the road, or else "we will shoot you." A young Muslim man surges forward and fires a projectile from a slingshot. Gunshots ring out and the crowd retreats.

A police chief in Kyaukphyu, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said more than 100 police deployed in those first few hours along with soldiers and firefighters. But they came under attack by Muslims, making it impossible to extinguish the blazes before the homes were destroyed.

When the violence tapered off around 2 a.m., 69 homes had been wrecked, the police chief said.

That night, hundreds of Kaman and Rohingya took refuge offshore, on Muslim-owned boats.

Few, if any, slept.

Shortly after dawn, it all began again.

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As the sun rose, Kyaw Thein, who made his living painting homes and offices, tried to return to his own home to gather clothes, blankets and any valuables he could carry.

But his house was already ablaze, and he retreated back to the boat. On the beach, Rakhine mobs were gathering.

He began to run.

Seconds later, someone plunged a machete into his upper right back. When he turned to see who, he was shocked: it was a Buddhist fisherman he had considered a friend.

"We all asked the same question," said Kyaw Thein, who is nursing a gaping wound. "How could the people we know do this to us?'"

The police chief said the Rakhine crowds swelled dramatically that morning as some 20,000 poured in from neighboring villages.

Soon, the situation was out of control.

As the fires spread, more and more Muslims sought refuge on the boats. Some sailed away, but a low tide stranded others for hours.

Witnesses interviewed by The Associated Press said the two sides faced off along the beach, mostly at a distance, shouting insults. One Muslim man said security forces posted on the shore fired in the air to push back a Rakhine mob, but there were too many to stop. Other mobs surged forward, and clashes ensued.

Tears streaming down her cheeks, Hla Hla Yee, a 36-year-old Rohingya woman, said a Rakhine mob on the beach hacked up her son. She watched from a boat as they held up his remains. Other witnesses corroborated her account.

Investigations conducted by Human Rights Watch found that local security forces killed ethnic Kaman Muslims while soldiers stood by.

Atrocities were committed by Muslims too. Matthew Smith, of Human Rights Watch, said they had attacked and in some cases killed Rakhine civilians before fleeing. One Muslim man confessed to holding a severed head aloft from one of the boats, Smith said.

By the time it was over, more than 4,000 Muslims had fled on ships so packed there wasn't enough room to lie down. Another 1,700 moved to a makeshift camp outside town.

Police say 867 homes were destroyed - almost all of them Muslim.

The official casualty toll was nine Muslims dead, and two Rakhine.

---

When the first refugees from Kyaukphyu arrived in Sin Thet Maw, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) away, they were met with two very different reactions. Rohingya villagers opened their homes to them; the Rakhine ignored them.

The village, like many in Rakhine state, had already been split along sectarian lines even before violence first broke out in June. Its Buddhist inhabitants lived separated from the Rohingya by a long, wide field that cuts a neat line between the two. The communities traded used to trade, but all interaction ceased in June.

A Rakhine named Said Thar Tun Maung, a local government administrator on the island, said 200 Buddhists, mostly women and children, fled when the refugees arrived, fearing they would be overwhelmed. He said he had not spoken to any of Muslims and did not care about the ordeal that brought them here.

Within days, the refugee population rose even more as another flotilla that had initially landed in the state capital, Sittwe, joined them.

Many of the displaced fled wearing only the clothes they wore. Now they sleep on a windy beach under white U.N. tarps and tents held up by bamboo sticks. They live off their savings, U.N. handouts of rice and beans, and shellfish they catch in the shallows.

They have no schools to send their children to, and say authorities don't let them fish. They worry about maintaining the vital fleet of dilapidated fishing boats on which their future depends; they have few tools to repair them.

The government has yet to help, or even ask how it can.

Most of all, the refugees wonder what they'll do next. Some talk of making new lives for themselves in Sin Thet Maw. Others hope they can emigrate - a dim prospect since few countries will take them.

One thing is sure, though.

"We can never go back to Kyaukphyu," said Kyaw Thein. "After what happened ... it will never be the same."

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Associated Press Writer Yadana Htun contributed to this report.

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