President Thein Sein traveled to Myanmar's conflict-torn west on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013 as a new spate of sectarian violence gripped the state of Rakhine, with police saying Buddhist rioters killed a 94-year-old Muslim woman and torched more than 70 homes.
THANDWE, Myanmar — President Thein Sein toured Myanmar’s conflict-torn west on Tuesday as sectarian violence again gripped the state of Rakhine, with Buddhist mobs killing a 94-year-old Muslim woman and torching more than 70 homes, officials and residents said.
Police officer Kyaw Naing said more than 800 rioters took to the streets in Thabyuchaing about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the coastal town of Thandwe, some swinging swords.
The elderly Muslim woman died from stab wounds, the officer said, putting the number of houses set on fire at between 70 and 80.
Attacks also were reported in the nearby villages of Shwe Hlay and Linthi, but few details were available. Some residents hid in their homes, while others fled in fear.
Thein Sein’s visit to the divided region was his first since sectarian violence broke out more than a year ago.
He arrived in the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe and was scheduled to travel to several more towns in the area, including Maungdaw to the north and Thandwe to the south, where tensions have been building since Saturday, when a Buddhist taxi driver accused a Muslim shop owner of hurling abuses when he tried to park in front.
Angry about the way the case was handled by police, Buddhist mobs started torching homes on Sunday, said a senior official in the president’s office, declining to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the sensitive trip.
A heavy security presence in Thandwe failed to deter the attackers.
Sectarian clashes that began in Rakhine state in June 2012 have since morphed into an anti-Muslim campaign that has spread to towns and villages nationwide. So far, more than 240 people have been killed and more than 140,000 have fled their homes, the vast majority of them Muslims.
Those attacked Tuesday were largely Kamans, one of several minority Muslim groups, residents said.
Thein Sein, who has been praised for making moves to transition from half a century of harsh military rule, has also been criticized for failing to contain the unrest and protect the country’s embattled Muslim minority.
The latest flare-up began in Thandwe after a Buddhist taxi driver told police he had been verbally abused by a Muslim while trying to park in front of his shop, according to a state government spokesman.
Police took the Muslim man in for questioning. But when he was released soon afterward, people became angry and started throwing stones at his home.
Several houses were burned Sunday, and a curfew was imposed. But on Tuesday, ethnic Rakhine Buddhist mobs began new arson attacks in the region, 270 kilometers (170 miles) northwest of Yangon.
The violence has proven to be a major challenge for Thein Sein’s government, which rights groups say has done little to crack down on religious intolerance and failed to bridge a divide that has left hundreds of thousands of Muslims marginalized, many of them trapped in prison-like camps for those who have been displaced.
The attacks have spread this year into Myanmar’s heartland, ravaging several other cities. At the same time, a Buddhist-led campaign called “969” has taken root nationwide. Its supporters urge Buddhists to shop only at Buddhist stores and avoid marrying, hiring or selling their homes or land to Muslims.
Muslims, who account for about 4 percent of Myanmar’s roughly 60 million people, have been the main victims of the violence since it began. But most criminal trials have involved prosecutions of Muslims rather than members of the Buddhist majority.