THANDWE, Myanmar (AP) — Even as the president came to western Myanmar to urge an end to sectarian violence, security forces could not prevent Buddhist mobs from torching the homes of minority Muslims or hacking them to death, at times, unwittingly, even encouraging them.
That has raised questions about the government’s ability to quench a virulent strain of religious hatred blamed for the deaths of more than 240 people in the last 18 months.
The latest attack occurred Tuesday in Thandwe township, killing five just hours before President Thein Sein touched down for a scheduled visit.
He promised an immediate investigation and, with uncharacteristic speed, state-run media by Saturday night said 44 suspects had been arrested, though few other details were released.
Still, as soldiers walked the dusty streets in the hardest-hit village of Thabyuchaing, semi-automatics slung across their shoulders, Myint Aung and other Muslims residents were afraid.
They said authorities had plenty of opportunities to prevent a series of attacks Tuesday, each more brutal than the next, but did nothing. More than 110 homes were burned to the ground, and nearly 500 people were left homeless.
Initially, the Buddhist mobs numbering about 150 entered before dawn, setting one house on fire, but Muslim residents were able to push them back, said the 52-year-old, standing before a charred mosque and several homes.
Police detained three suspects soon after, but released them almost immediately following threats of more violence, he said.
Though police promised the Muslims villagers protection — and disarmed them and ordered them back into their homes — the mobs returned in even greater numbers at 9:30 a.m., and then again at 2:30 p.m.
Among the dead were a 94-year-old woman and an 89-year-old man, both too old to run, each with multiple stab wounds.
“We had no way to protect ourselves” said Win Myint, 51, another resident, standing in front of his demolished home, echoing complaints heard by victims in other attacks across the state.
“And the police did nothing. They just looked on. Now everyone is living in fear now.”
In an interview with Associated Press in New York, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin denied the charges that law enforcement or government troops failed to take necessary action.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million, is undergoing a mind-boggling political transformation after a half-century of brutal military rule.
But greater freedoms of expression have had a dark side, exposing deep-seated hatred toward Muslims that, fueled by radical monks, have ignited attacks first in western Rakhine state and then from Meikhtila in the country’s center to Lashio near the Chinese border.
Under the new democratization, a poorly trained and ill-equipped police force — made up almost exclusively of Buddhists — is now tasked with dealing with sectarian violence, the army only stepping in at the invitation of civilian authorities or during states of emergency.
The results, on many occasions, have been disastrous.
“From the facts as presented, it appears the police failed to do their job properly,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, the Asia program director for the International Crisis Group, a research organization.
“But it is not just the authorities fault here,” he said. “The community is being riled up by extremists. There is no justification for such violence.”
Tensions started to build in Thandwe one week ago, when a Buddhist taxi driver accused a Muslim shop owner of being abusive over a parking space dispute.
Several houses were burned or damaged in the hours that followed, and by Tuesday the anger exploded into mass violence.
Thein Sein was quoted by state media as saying he was “suspicious of the motives” of those who turned a “trivial argument and ordinary crime into racial and religious clashes.”
“According to the evidence in hand, rioters who set fire to the villages are outsiders,” he said. “Participation of all is needed to expose and arrest those who were involved in the incident and those instigating the conflict behind the scene.
“Action will be taken in accordance with the law, without discrimination on the grounds of race and religion.”
In what appeared to be rare criticism of “969,” a state media report said some organizations had distributed religious flags that were hung in front of thousands of Buddhist-owned homes and shops.
A Buddhist-led campaign, “969″ has taken root nationwide with its supporters urging Buddhists to shop only at Buddhist stores and avoid marrying Muslims or selling homes to them.
Billboards with the logo were seen lining the bumpy roads.
Muslims in and around Thandwe also blamed outsiders, saying they had existed peacefully side by side with Buddhists for generations and never imagined it could be otherwise.
“Now, suddenly, anyone who believes in Islam is seen as the enemy,” said U Win Myint, a 51-year-old member of the ethnic Kaman Muslim minority. “They are targeting us just for our beliefs.”
Others specifically blamed 969 and “northern Rakhines.”
Zaw Lay Khar, 62, who lost her mother in the attack, described how mobs waving swords and knives came into the village.
“There was nothing we could do but run,” she said, adding that while the faces of the attackers were largely unfamiliar, she saw some Buddhist neighbors pointing out Muslim homes.
“I don’t know how this happened.”