Unforgiving history: Why Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state in Myanmar are at each others’ throats
IN THE morning sunlight, the panorama from the Shwethaung pagoda, on the highest hill in Mrauk-u, looked magical: lush rice paddy, sparkling lakes and wooded hills, many topped by other glinting gilt pagodas. But in one spot, black smoke was billowing. Another village was burning. From October 22nd-24th Mrauk-u, a tourist centre in Rakhine state in Myanmar, and former capital of the independent kingdom of Arakan, turned into a war zone.
Below the pagoda a spontaneous, medieval army was massing. Hundreds of young men were on the march: packed on the backs of pickups, on motorcycles, on trishaws, tuk-tuks and bicycles, but mostly on foot. They carried spears, swords, cleavers, bamboo staves, slingshots, crossbows and the occasional petrol bomb. Violence between the Buddhist majority and the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority has wracked Rakhine since June. These were angry Buddhists seeking to avenge the deaths of three of their kin, killed, they said, by Muslims. One tugged at an imaginary beard and made a grisly throat-cutting gesture.
Within days the trouble had spread across Rakhine, a strip of Myanmar’s western coastline that borders Bangladesh in the north. The government reported 82 killed, 4,600 houses burned and more than 22,000 people displaced—all almost certainly underestimates. Satellite imagery shows the utter destruction of a Muslim quarter of the coastal town of Kyaukphyu, from where oil-and-gas pipelines are to cross Myanmar to China.