'We were family': Myanmar attacks shatter rare ethnic harmony

By AFP   October 15, 2016 | 01:57 am PT
'We were family': Myanmar attacks shatter rare ethnic harmony
An armed Myanmar police officer stands guard at the Aung Mingalar ward, a confinement area for the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority in Sittwe capital of Rakhine State on October 13, 2016. Myanmar troops killed 10 people in northern Rakhine on October 12, 2016, the military said, as the death toll mounted from a spate of violent clashes in a region long-scarred by sectarian unrest.Photo by AFP/Ye Aung Thu
At least 26 civilians died in recent clashes, which the government has blamed on Muslim 'terrorists'.

For Moe Moe, an attack by armed men on her village in northwestern Myanmar not only left six police dead but also shattered a rare vestige of Buddhist-Muslim harmony in the tense region.

For more than 20 years, local Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist border police from a nearby guard post ate together at the tables and plastic chairs outside her food stall.

But that mingling has stopped since deadly attacks on local border posts on Sunday which the government has blamed on Muslim "terrorists".

The military, which has locked down the area, said at least 26 civilians died in ensuing clashes, which raised fears of a repeat of 2012 sectarian violence that ripped Rakhine apart and drove tens of thousands of Rohingya into displacement camps.

Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group that makes up the majority in northern Rakhine, but who are reviled by many in majority Buddhist Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

"We used to live together with (Muslims) like family," said the 62-year-old, a Buddhist ethnic Rakhine, as she stirred curry inside her tiny kitchen in the village of Warpaik.

"They used to come to my shop. They used to work inside the (border post)," she told AFP, which has changed her name to protect her identity.

But in the early hours of last Sunday men wielding guns, machetes, and homemade weapons stormed the nearby Kyikanpyin border post and two others in the area.

All told, nine police were killed, state media said.

Frantic escape

"About 500 or 600 people attacked in three places," she said, though state media put the number of attackers at 90.

"About 40 of us ran up a nearby hill with the children. We got hurt because we slipped and fell down as we ran," she said, showing injuries to her foot.

"They were shooting with guns. They only ran away when soldiers arrived. If soldiers hadn't come, we would have all been killed."

Attackers returned three days later to Warpaik, setting fire to more than two dozen bamboo houses.

The destroyed homes still smouldered when AFP journalists visited on Friday, the burnt out shell of a bicycle left among the ruins of one house.

Photos of a teenage boy in an Islamic skullcap also were scattered on the ground, one showing him proudly astride a scooter. Nearby was a stained and torn list of Muslim household members.

Myanmar's president has blamed jihadists from a previously unknown group called Aqa Mul Mujahidin, saying its leader was trained by the Pakistani Taliban and funded by Middle Eastern organisations.

A statement from his office said the group had for months promoted "extremist violent ideology among Muslims in the area" and ran secret training sessions in the hills and forests.

Moe Moe said she recognised three attackers from videos circulating on social media appearing to show armed Rohingya men calling for Muslims worldwide to rise up in jihad.

She knew the names of three of them and said others also had frequented her food stall.

With officials warning of more attacks, and food supplies running short under the lockdown, Moe Moe is considering leaving the village where she has lived for 24 years.

"I'm still very scared. My relatives have asked me to move back (south). I am thinking I will."

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