Elderly Woman’s Killing Lays Bare Myanmar’s Religious Divisions

Elderly Woman’s Killing Lays Bare Myanmar’s Religious Divisions

David Hogsholt for The New York Times

The daughter of Daw Aye Kyi, a partly paralyzed 94-year-old woman who was stabbed to death in the village of Thabyu Chaing. By November 9, 2013

THABYU CHAING, Myanmar — Paralyzed from the waist down, Daw Aye Kyi was too heavy for her daughter and granddaughter to carry into the surrounding jungle when a Buddhist mob stormed through this rice-farming village hunting for Muslims.

Three men brandishing machetes and knives ignored pleas for mercy and lunged at Ms. Aye Kyi. Her daughter and her granddaughter fled. Several hours later, Ms. Aye Kyi’s body was discovered, slumped next to the smoking cinders of her wooden house. The police say she was stabbed six times. She was 94 years old.

Ms. Aye Kyi was one of five Muslims killed in the attack on Thabyu Chaing last month, a rampage that also destroyed more than a dozen homes. So far, in a year and a half of sporadic Buddhist-Muslim violence, more than 200 people, mostly Muslims, have died.

But the killing of a helpless elderly woman — and what followed — is one of the starkest symbols of the breadth of anti-Muslim feelings in this Buddhist-majority country, the lack of sympathy for the victims and the failure of security forces to stop the killings.

The state-run news media obliquely reported the killings as “casualties” without offering any details. And although the president of the fledgling democracy ordered his office to directly investigate the deaths, there has been no national outcry.

“For a culture that has such great respect for the elderly, the killing of this old lady should have been a turning point, a moment of national soul searching,” said Richard Horsey, a former United Nations official in the country. “The fact that this has not happened is almost as disturbing as the killing itself.”

The violence that swept through this village took with it the final vestiges of what had until very recently been a peaceful place, where Muslims and Buddhists had coexisted amicably for generations before the loosening of the hard hand of the old junta freed some of Myanmar’s demons. The match that lit the violence here in Thabyu Chaing, in the western state of Rakhine, as elsewhere, appeared to be the teachings of a radical Buddhist group, 969, that the government continues to allow to preach hatred and extend its influence throughout the countryside.

Hatred for Muslims — partly because of colonial-era grievances — and the fear of appearing sympathetic to them run so deep in Myanmar that officials seem afraid even to console the victims’ families.

When the local police chief, U Tin Maung Lwin, inspected the body of Ms. Aye Kyi, her daughter and granddaughter remember his saying, “How cruel.” But in a telephone interview, Mr. Tin Maung Lwin, who, like the vast majority of government employees, is Buddhist, denied using “cruel” to describe the murder.

“I did not use words that favor one side or the other,” he said.

After five decades of military rule, Myanmar remains a heavily militarized country, where the army alone numbers around half a million men and where plainclothes intelligence officers are ubiquitous. Yet security forces were unwilling or unable to stop the Buddhist mob here.

Muslim villagers say the authorities were well aware of the danger because they received a telephone call from the local police station on Sept. 30, the day before the violence, warning them of looming danger and instructing them to erect a gate at the entrance to the village.

In the early hours of Oct. 1, when villagers received reports that a mob of several dozen men was approaching, they made urgent phone calls to the police and military units a few miles away.

U Myint Aung, a Muslim farmer, says the security forces responded with skepticism. “They asked us, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’ ” he said.

“We told them, ‘Yes, we are sure. Come quickly!’ ”

A single police vehicle arrived and dispersed a first wave of attackers before dawn. But the mob that killed Ms. Aye Kyi returned midmorning, and the police fled after firing into the air, villagers say.

Lt. Col. Kyaw Tint, a senior police officer in Rakhine State, said “security forces did their best.”

Tomás Ojea Quintana, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, has criticized the government for the failure of security forces to intervene in the repeated bouts of violence against Muslims. He had a taste of police inaction in August when he was investigating the site of a massacre of Muslims in the central city of Meiktila. As he toured the city, “police stood by while his car was punched and kicked by a violent mob,” according to a United Nations report.

The failure to stop the violence of Oct. 1 was awkward for Myanmar’s president, U Thein Sein, who was on a scheduled visit to the area at the time. Mr. Thein Sein said he “urged the social, religious and community leaders to work with each other in finding solutions.”

Under his office’s direction, the investigation of the violence appears to have yielded swifter results than after previous killings; more than 70 people, including about 50 Buddhists, have been arrested, according to the police.

The bodies of two Buddhists were discovered several days later in another village, but the circumstances of their deaths are unclear.

When the first bouts of religious violence in Myanmar broke out in June 2012, the fighting was in a relatively circumscribed area near the border with Bangladesh and involved tensions between Buddhists and a stateless Muslim group known as the Rohingya, who are widely reviled by Myanmar’s Buddhists. But the violence here, several hundred miles away, underlines how the strife has metastasized into a nationwide anti-Muslim movement.

By the accounts of Buddhists and Muslims, Ms. Aye Kyi’s village was a portrait of religious harmony. The citizenship of her ethnic group, the Kaman, has never been in dispute.

Families from both communities in the village have been intertwined: Ms. Aye Kyi was born Buddhist and married a Muslim man, and three of her four children chose to become Buddhist. Buddhists and Muslims planted rice together and attended one another’s weddings and funerals. Even when violence broke out elsewhere last year, the village remained calm.

Muslims say the spiraling hatred is largely due to influences from outside the village.

They say Buddhist neighbors became more distant after the spiritual leader of the radical 969 movement, who preaches on the threat of Islam in the country, gave a sermon in a neighboring village in April. Buddhist families shared his hate-filled videos. In August, heeding a call by a private Buddhist organization called the Preservation and Protection of National Races and Religion, Buddhist families hoisted Buddhist flags in front of their homes, the first time in living memory that villagers had done so, according to the abbot of the local monastery.

To Muslims, the flags represented an “us-and-them” separation that allowed the mob to know which houses to spare.

“They hate Islam, and they want it to disappear from the country,” said Daw Than Than Nwe, a Muslim woman from the village.

The spiritual leader of 969, a monk named Ashin Wirathu, says Buddhism is under siege by Muslims, who are having more children than Buddhists. He says his group is not behind any of the killings, but many say his preachings incite the violence. Mr. Thein Sein, the president, once called Mr. Wirathu a “noble person.”

The immediate trigger for the Oct. 1 violence, Buddhists say, was an episode in which a Muslim merchant insulted a Buddhist man for flying a Buddhist flag on his three-wheeled taxi.

U Einda Sara, the abbot of a large Buddhist temple in Myanmar’s most famous beach resort, Ngapali, is typical of extremist Buddhist monks who have great influence in Burmese society and are rarely publicly contradicted.

In an interview in his monastery, the abbot offered a version of the killing of the 94-year-old woman that stands in stark contradiction to police accounts. The abbot asserted that Ms. Aye Kyi “ran away and died from lack of oxygen.” Her body was probably mutilated by fellow Muslims to make Buddhists look bad, he said.

The abbot justified the killing of Muslims on the grounds that it was self-defense.

“If you encounter a tiger, you run away if possible,” he said. “But if you cannot run, you have to fight back.”

Wai Moe contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar.

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