YANGON: Police in western Myanmar fired warning shots to disperse an angry crowd as sectarian tensions spread following the mob killing of 10 people, thought to be mostly Muslims, residents said today.
Locals reported increased security in Rakhine state along the Bay of Bengal after the flare-up in unrest in the area, which has a large Muslim minority population including the much-persecuted Rohingya.
Hundreds of people were said to have gathered at a police station in the town of Sittwe late Sunday demanding justice because they mistakenly thought a local politician had been kidnapped and killed by Muslims.
“Some drunken people played a leading role. They threw bottles and stones,” said Aye Maung, chairman of Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, a political party representing the ethnic Rakhine people.
“The police fired warning shots using rubber bullets. They also used tear gas to disperse the people. I heard about 10 or 11 persons were injured,” he said, adding that the unrest continued until early today.
“Some people were also detained for questioning. The situation is under control now,” he said.
The violence came hours after a mob of Rakhines – who are mostly Buddhist – set upon a bus in Taunggote in Rakhine state that they believed was carrying those responsible for the recent rape and murder of a local girl, residents said.
The death toll from that incident has risen to 10, a government official today. No arrests have been reported in connection with the attack.
While the identity of the victims has not been announced they are thought to have been mostly Muslims visiting from central Myanmar.
“More than a hundred people beat and killed those people. The residents even torched the bus,” said one man from the village where the attack took place.
The Burmese Muslim Association said in a statement that eight of the victims were travelling back to Yangon after attending a mosque when they were attacked by a group with knives, while two were from Rakhine state.
“The Rakhines are threatening the Muslims of the other towns of Rakhine state too,” it said.
Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims occur periodically in Myanmar and Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh, is a flashpoint for tensions.
In February 2001, the then-ruling junta declared a curfew in the Rakhine State capital city Sittwe after violent riots broke out between Muslims and Buddhists.
Buddhists make up some 89% of the population of Myanmar, with Muslims officially representing 4%.
Pockets of sectarian unrest have occasionally broken out in other parts of the country, where there has been a series of dramatic political reforms since a quasi-civilian regime last year replaced decades of outright military rule.
Rights violations also affect all religious groups in Myanmar, including Buddhist monks who participated in a failed uprising in 2007 and who continue to be arrested and harassed, according to Amnesty International.
Muslim Rohingyas meanwhile are “suppressed and forced to relocate on religious as well as ethnic grounds” while Christian religious sites are relocated or destroyed, it said in its annual report released last month.