YANGON: Buddhist vigilantes in western Myanmar attacked a bus and killed nine Muslims, police said today, the deadliest communal violence in the region since a reformist government took power a year ago. The bus was besieged near Taunggoke town in the western state of Rakhine on Sunday evening by a group who blamed some of its passengers for the murder of a Buddhist woman a week ago, said residents and politicians. One of those killed was travelling in a separate car.
Rakhine is home to Myanmar’s largest concentration of Muslims, but their presence is often resented by the Buddhist majority. The resentment is particularly sharp for Rohingya Muslims, whose roots date back to the nineteenth century when they were brought to the country as labourers by colonial power Britain.
Ko Kyaw Lay, a Muslim human rights activist in the region who belongs to an opposition party, said none of those killed were Rohingyas. Police could not immediately confirm details of the violence. “An investigation is underway but I can’t give you any further details,” said a police official who requested anonymity.
In a separate incident on Sunday in Sittwe, the Rakhine capital, 10 people were shot and wounded when riot police tried to break up a protest, witnesses said. They said the rally by about 200 people was unrelated to the attack on the bus.
Protesters threw stones at police and a 13-year-old novice monk was among those wounded, witnesses said. Myanmar is one of Southeast Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries, where sectarian and ethnic tension persists despite a new political climate and broad reforms by a civilian-led government that says it has made peace and national unity a priority since it replaced a military junta 15 months ago.
In the case of the bus attack, Taunggoke resident Kyaw Min said the Buddhists ‘were angered by the authorities’ handling’ of an attack on a woman who people in the area said was raped by several men and then killed.
Just before Sunday’s attack, leaflets bearing a photo of the woman and describing the rape were distributed.