Thousands of Buddhists gathered Friday in Sittwe in western Burma’s Rakhine state demanding that the Muslim quarter be moved outside of the city, as rumors of a kidnapping fueled tensions between the two religious communities following bloody clashes in June.
According to an RFA reporter who witnessed the angry mob, some 500 people initially gathered near the quarter, known as Aung Mingalar, following rumors—which were later dismissed—that a Buddhist Rakhine boy had been kidnapped and killed by local Muslim Rohingyas.
They faced off with more than 100 security personnel who had roped off the area to prevent anyone from entering while they investigated the situation, he said.
"There was a rumor that a young ice seller was taken by Muslims while passing by Aung Mingalar, the Muslim quarter in Sittwe, and that he was killed,” the reporter said.
As the crowd swelled, more than 100 fully armed members of the security forces—including police and military—with around 10 army vehicles secured the area.
The authorities told the crowd to be calm and “not to jump to conclusions.”
The RFA reporter said that he was initially unable to speak with the family of the boy because their house was located within the area that had been blocked off by the authorities. He was denied access to their home by the local police chief and commanding military officer.
“Later in the evening, the reporter said, the boy was located unharmed, but by then the crowd had swelled to nearly 2,000 Buddhists who demanded that the residents of Aung Mingalar be relocated to Muslim communities outside of the city, saying that they feared for their safety.
In June, clashes between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines left more than 80 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.
The clashes were sparked when 10 Muslims traveling on a bus were beaten to death by a Buddhist mob in apparent revenge for the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman, although it was later learned that the passengers had no connection to the incident.
The RFA reporter said authorities had confirmed that the boy, identified as Aung Naing Oo, 15, from nearby Kyaydaw Peikseit village, was safely returned to his home Friday evening.
“The child has been returned, but people are demanding that this Muslim quarter be moved outside of the town … where other Muslims are, saying that conflict can break out at any moment if the Muslims remain here, and that they are concerned for their security,” he said.
The RFA reporter said that the child and his mother came out to address the crowd to calm down the situation.
Soon after, Rakhine state Border Affairs Minister Htein Linn and three other ministers arrived at the scene and asked the crowd to disperse ahead of a 7:00 p.m. curfew that was imposed after the June violence.
Concerns over the handling of communal violence in Rakhine state have rattled the nation and drawn criticism from abroad as Burmese President Thein Sein seeks assistance from the international community to implement sweeping democratic reforms he has launched since taking office last March.
On Thursday, while addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York during his first trip to the U.S. as Burma’s leader, Thein Sein highlighted efforts his nominally civilian government has made to address ongoing tensions in the region.
He noted that a national-level independent investigation commission, comprised of respected persons from a variety of faiths, has been established to investigate the June violence and report its findings to him, and that the government has been facilitating visits to the area by representatives from a number of international agencies.
But he said that the problem “cannot be solved overnight,” adding that the government has short-term and long-term plans in place taking into account political, economic, and social issues in the area.
Thein Sein came under international criticism after he suggested following the June violence that the U.N.’s refugee agency take responsibility for many of the country’s Rohingyas and that they should be deported.
His proposal was swiftly rejected by the agency, but thousands of Buddhist monks took to the streets to back his call and protest against the Rohingyas, saying they do not belong in Burma.
The Rohingya, whom the U.N. considers one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, are not recognized as an ethnic group in Burma even though they have lived in the country for decades.
Many of the country’s 800,000 Rohingyas are denied citizenship even though their families have lived there for generations.
Reported by Khin Maung Soe and Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.