A Rohingya Muslim was killed and up to 15 others detained in fresh violence in western Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state after security forces opened fire following a dispute at a refugee camp, a local religious leader and authorities said Thursday.
Local police officers told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the violence broke out on Wednesday when two Muslims from a neighboring village who were buying goods at the Darpaing Refugee Camp got into an altercation with another Muslim resident of the camp, which is located in Sittwe township.
They said that a riot ensued when police officers entered the camp to mediate between the two parties.
Darpaing Refugee Camp is home to mostly ethnic minority Rohingyas displaced by Buddhist-Muslim violence that has rocked Rakhine state since 2012.
According to the officers, police had to “open fire five times to scare off” around 100 aggressive residents of the camp who they said attacked them with slingshots.
They were forced to “fire another four times” when the crowd tried to attack them for detaining three camp residents for initiating the violence. The two Muslim villagers who were involved in the original argument were also detained, they said.
The London-based Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK) said in a statement Thursday that “more than 100 security forces” entered the Darpaing Refugee Camp on Wednesday.
It said security forces “killed one Rohingya and seriously injured two others,” and arrested “more than 15 Rohingyas” in the incident, although it did not provide details of what had prompted the violence or how the man was shot.
Armain Shawfi, a representative of the camp residents, told RFA on Thursday that he and other Darpaing Camp elders had been informed by police officers from Sittwe township that a Muslim man had been killed in the clash, but did not mention whether others had been injured or detained.
“At this point, things have calmed down,” said Shawfi, also known as Than Naing.
“District police officers came in and explained that a Muslim was accidentally killed [in the shooting], and they asked us to help them control the situation. We held a funeral [for the man who was killed] today.”
Some 140,000 Muslims have been displaced by communal violence in Buddhist majority Rakhine state over the last two years that saw entire villages burned.
Stateless Rohingyas, considered in Myanmar to be outsiders from Bangladesh, bore the brunt of the violence and many have fled by boat to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, where they are also held in refugee camps.
Shawfi said that, in general, relations between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists had become “closer than before,” and that while Muslims are prohibited from leaving the refugee camp, Rakhines regularly enter the facility to trade.
“They come to our camp and bring us things that we want or need. We give them vegetables in return, but we can’t hold conversations with them, as we had before [the violence],” he said.
“If the government tells us to live together in the same place, we will do so, but if they tell us it is still not safe for us to live side-by-side, we will have to wait.”
He said Major General Maung Maung Ohn, who Myanmar President Thein Sein appointed the new chief minister for Rakhine state in June, had done good work for the region since taking over the job from Hla Maung Tin, who had resigned abruptly after his tenure was rocked by communal violence.
“He came and met with us two or three times and said that [the government] is trying to help [Muslims and Buddhists] live together peacefully, and he asked for us to participate in that effort,” he said.
“We told him we will try [to live peacefully together] as well.”
Armain Shawfi said that by allowing Muslims to conduct business with Rakhines, the authorities were rebuilding trust between the two groups.
“How can we do business together if we don’t trust one another?” he asked.
“I think there are certain people or groups that have worked to create instability between us. But we want to live together with the Rakhines again and we hope they feel the same way.”
Armain Shawfi said that the Rohingya community hopes to be officially recognized as citizens of Myanmar and given the rights that are afforded to them.
The government describes the estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims as Bengalis, saying they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, although many have lived in the country for generations. The U.N. says they are among the world's most persecuted minorities.
“We don’t demand to be recognized as Rohingyas, but we want our own ethnic name. We don’t want to be called ‘Bengalis’,” he said.
“We hope the government will work on our behalf. Minister Soe Thein [of the President’s Office] said that there will be no [specific] name for us—we will just be known as Myanmar citizens. The Rakhine state chief minister said that the government is working to resolve this issue.”
According to the Irrawaddy online journal, the local government in Rakhine’s Myebon township has begun examining the citizenship applications of nearly 1,100 residents who have self-identified as “Bengalis” under a controversial pilot program covering Rohingyas in the state.
Khin Soe, an immigration officer who participated in the screening process, told the Irrawaddy that the vetting began on Tuesday and had processed 34 people in its first three days.
The township committee tasked with screening applicants will forward its findings to the state government, which will in turn submit recommendations to the central government.
Earlier this year, the government declined to count any people self-identifying as Rohingya in a nationwide census.
Activist detention extended
Meanwhile, a court in Myanmar has extended the detention of an elderly Rohingya human rights activist, according to a report by German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
Kyaw Hla Aung, 74, was arrested last year on suspicion of organizing protests against a government scheme to register Rohingya people as Bengalis, the report said.
He is being charged with six offenses under the colonial-era Penal Code including rioting, robbery and inciting unrest.
If convicted he faces a sentence of up to 20 years. He has already spent 13 months behind bars.
On Monday the court postponed proceedings until Aug. 18, but it is unclear whether or not Kyaw Hla Aung will be sentenced on that date.
Two week ago, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, met with Kyaw Hla Aung and other Muslim prisoners in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, but did not give details on the meetings.
Lee has said that Kyaw Hla Aung and five other Rohingya activists are currently being detained on political grounds.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.