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Rise in Bigotry Fuels Massacre Inside Myanmar

Rohingya villagers' charred Quran was evidence of violence by a mob in Du Chee Yar Tan, in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. A United Nations inquiry found that 40 people were killed in a rampage in January. (Photo: Adam Dean for The New York Times)


DU CHEE YAR TAN, Myanmar — Under the pale moon of Jan. 13, Zaw Patha watched from her bamboo house as Mohmach, 15, her eldest child, was dragged from the kiosk where he slept as guardian of the family business.

The men who abducted the boy struck him with the butt of a rifle until he fell to the dirt path, she said in an interview, gesturing with a sweep of her slender arms. Terrified, she fled into the rice fields. She assumes he is dead.

Three doors away, Zoya, dressed in a black abaya, showed the latch on her front door that she said armed men had broken as they stormed in and began beating her 14-year-old son, Mohamed. She has not seen him since.

The villagers’ accounts back up a United Nationsinvestigation, which concluded that the attack on Du Chee Yar Tan that night resulted in the deaths of at least 40 men, women and children, one of the worst instances of violence against the country’s long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims. They were killed, the United Nations says, by local security forces and civilians of the rival Rakhine ethnic group, many of them adherents of an extreme Buddhist ideology who were angered by the kidnapping of a Rakhine policeman by some Rohingya men.

Myanmar’s government, intent on international acceptance and investment, has steadfastly denied the killings occurred in the village, a collection of hamlets spread across luxuriant rice fields close to Bangladesh and a five-hour ferry ride up the languid Kaladan River from the state capital, Sittwe. The country’s human rights commission called the news “unverifiable and unconfirmed.”

The United Nations findings, however, have become emblematic of the increasing violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya, an estimated 1.3 million people who are denied citizenship under national law.

The world organization’s report — presented to the government by the United Nations and United States but not made public — documents the initial discovery of the massacre by five Muslim men who sneaked into the area after the attack. They found the severed heads of at least 10 Rohingya bobbing in a water tank. Some of those were children’s.

One of the men said he was so rattled, and concerned his eyes were playing tricks in the darkness, that he put his hands in the tank to confirm through touch what he thought he saw.

The killings are a test for Myanmar’s government, which has done little to rein in radical Buddhists, even as it pursues broad economic and political reforms of policies created by its former military leaders. The government has backed severe restrictions imposed by local authorities on Muslims’ freedom of movement and deprivation of basic services in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live.

The bloodletting is also a challenge for Western governments that have showered economic aid and good will on Myanmar in the hope of winning the fealty of the resource-rich fledgling democracy. Those countries have mostly kept their concerns about the treatment of the Rohingya quiet in the hope, diplomats said, of persuading the government to change its stance.

On Friday, the crackdown on the ethnic minority continued, when the government ordered Doctors Without Borders, the Rohingya’s main health care provider, to stop providing its services to them. One of the group’s offenses, according to a government official, was the hiring of too many Rohingya.

Since 2012, many Rohingya, a long-reviled group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, have been herded into miserable camps they are not allowed to leave, even for work. Those still allowed to live in villages like Du Chee Yar Tan are at the mercy of the local authorities, many of whom are inspired by an extremist Buddhist group whose monks have used the nation’s new freedoms to travel the countryside on motorbikes preaching hatred of Muslims.

The latest carnage is a major embarrassment for the government, which has just assumed an important position as the annual chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

In a sign of the sensitivity, a visit to the village to assess the conflicting reports about the night of Jan. 13 was cut short when local police officers briefly detained two New York Times reporters and a photographer.

In response to a major 2012 spasm of violence in Sittwe that included the firebombing of homes and left an estimated 300 dead, most of them Muslims, President Thein Sein said most Rohingya were in Myanmar illegally, despite their having lived there, in some cases, for generations. His solution: The United Nations should help deport them.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate and opposition leader, is rarely asked at home about discrimination against the Rohingya because it is broadly accepted in Myanmar.

She has defended her lack of action to the foreign news media, saying that taking sides could further exacerbate tensions, an explanation that even her Western supporters believe is calculated to avoid offending voters ahead of elections next year.

Though there have been attacks on other Muslim groups elsewhere in Myanmar in the past two years, the animosity toward the Rohingya is especially combustible. Many of them were brought to the country from India in British colonial times, and many ethnic Burmese despise them as illegal intruders from what is now Bangladesh.

About 140,000 displaced Rohingya whose homes were destroyed in two major attacks in 2012 now live in more than two dozen camps around Sittwe, a dilapidated trading center. Largely dependent on assistance from international humanitarian groups, which are often harassed by the local authorities, the Rohingya remain trapped in the camps that foreign aid workers call the world’s largest outdoor jails.

The presidential spokesman, U Ye Htut, said in a telephone interview that plans last year for “resettlement and rehabilitation” of those in the camps were suspended because the “Bengalis did not agree and threw stones,” using a term common in Myanmar for the Rohingya, indicating the belief that they belong in Bangladesh.

Of the 18 townships in Rakhine State, seven have already barred Muslims from using their clinics, foreign aid workers said. And a report released last week by Fortify Rights, a group that specializes in the Rohingya, chronicled a pattern of discrimination by officials that is intensifying as local authorities appear increasingly desperate to drive the group out. A dozen leaked documents dated from 1993 to 2008 showed the government’s efforts to slow the growth of the Rohingya population, including a requirement for official permission to marry and limits on the number of children couples can have. The presidential spokesman, Mr. Ye Htut, dismissed the findings as “a one-sided view of the Bengali.”

As a way out of the bleak camps, nearly 80,000 Rohingya men, women and children last year took perilous sea journeys run by smugglers to Thailand and on to Malaysia or north to Bangladesh. Some drowned in capsized boats, and many were detained in Thailand, said Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project, a human rights group.

“The risk seems worth it to them,” she said.

Constrained Lives

Muhamed Fourhkhat, 54, and his family have it better than most in the camps and the villages around Sittwe. They have managed — in a vastly reduced way — to replicate the lives they had as the scions of a well-to-do Rohingya quarter in Sittwe that flourished with markets, a primary school for Muslim and Buddhist children, a mosque and a monastery.

In the town, the family lived on the top stories of two concrete buildings laid with polished teak floors, and worked downstairs at their hardware business. The land had been passed down through his great-grandfather, Mr. Fourhkhat said.

The properties were burned by a mob, backed by Rakhine security forces, in June 2012, he said, and bulldozed by the government a few months later. So was every other structure in the neighborhood.

On a recent day, the neighborhood was an empty stretch of land overgrown with weeds and littered with plastic bags waving in the wind. An eerie silence has settled over what, by many accounts, was once a friendly marketplace that served both Rakhine and Rohingya.

Mr. Fourhkhat has never returned, though he could probably bribe a police officer to get there for a short visit. “Why would I?” he asked, pointing out that his beard, touched with henna, gave him away as a Muslim. “If I went,” he said, making a cutting gesture across his neck, “you would find my dead body there.”

He has built a new, if less sturdy, home of bamboo in a Muslim village that sits astride the camps inside a security perimeter that is designated by the Rakhine government as a place Rohingya can live. “I have never lived in bamboo before,” he said.

Mr. Fourhkhat’s son, Shwe Maung Thani, 28, is a graduate of Sittwe University in biology, getting his diploma before the state expelled all Rohingya students from the school. He has rarely sneaked out of the camp, but tried twice to get his sick mother to a hospital.

She died in January after receiving inadequate medical care, he said.

The only Rohingya doctor in Rakhine State — Dr. Tun Aung, trained before a citizenship law in 1982 disqualified Rohingya for medical school — was jailed after the June 2012 violence. He remains in prison, convicted of inciting violence, despite requests from the United States government for his release, an American official said.

A Longtime Fear

The Rakhine people, a group of about 2.1 million who are fiercely proud of their ancient kingdom, known as Arakan, are fearful of the Rohingya based on “an acute sense of demographic besiegement,” according to a recent article by Kyaw San Wai, a Myanmar citizen who is a senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. It is a feeling shared by many Buddhists across Myanmar.

Given the lack of a census since 1983, the demographics are imprecise. It is generally accepted by Myanmar and international officials that about 89 percent of the roughly 55 million people in Myanmar are Buddhist and 4 percent are Muslim. The Rohingya are a subset of those Muslims, making the Buddhists’ fear of being overwhelmed seem irrational though it is nonetheless real, the experts say.

“Among Burmese Buddhists, there is a widespread belief that Buddhism will disappear in the future,” Mr. Wai wrote.

While there is little chance of Muslims taking over the nation, they are enough of a presence here in Rakhine to make their presence felt politically.

In the 2010 general election, the central government allowed the Rohingya to vote despite their lack of citizenship, and the results were too close for comfort, said Khaing Pyi Soe, a senior member of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party. The Rakhine candidate in Sittwe won 52 percent of the vote, and the Rohingya candidate 48 percent. Mr. Khaing Pyi Soe and other officials say the Rohingya must not be allowed to vote next year because with many young Rakhine leaving the impoverished region for work elsewhere, the results would be reversed.

In the weeks before the attack on Du Chee Yar Tan, monks from the radical Buddhist movement called 969 visited a town nearby. The monks — who are at least tolerated by the national government, if not admired by some officials — have stirred anti-Muslim sentiment throughout parts of Myanmar.

There was no formal connection between the appearance of the monks and the killings, experts said, but their hate speech has increasingly infected the sloganeering of Rakhine civilians. Now, they say, even moderate Rakhine feel it would be too dangerous to stand up for reconciliation.

The United Nations and the United States have kept up the pressure on Myanmar about the killings in Du Chee Yar Tan, and Myanmar’s government, which has already conducted two fast inquiries, has ordered another and included a Muslim on the panel, though not a Rohingya Muslim.

One factor may complicate its investigation: The United Nations report on the attack said nearby villagers reported that in the hours immediately afterward, they saw Rakhine security forces ferry 20 bodies to surrounding hills, probably to cover up the murders. Immediately after the slaughter, 22 wounded and traumatized villagers sought help at rural clinics run by Doctors Without Borders, the group said.

Some were women traumatized by the horrors they witnessed, according to aid workers familiar with the cases; others sought treatment for wounds.

At least some villagers have drifted back to check on their belongings. Zaw Patha, whose son was dragged from the kiosk, found that the goods he guarded had been looted and her cows stolen.

Red liquid signifying blood was splashed on a school not far from her house, a warning to stay away.

“To an extent, I understand the worry of the Rakhine about Rohingya population growth in an area next to Bangladesh,” said the international aid worker. “But at the same time, you can’t get rid of 1.3 million people.”

Wai Moe contributed reporting.

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