YANGON (Reuters) - Buddhist vigilantes in western Myanmar attacked a bus and killed nine Muslims, police said on Monday, 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 laborers 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 in the area.
“ATTACK ON PILGRIMS”
Several residents, who declined to be identified, said the Muslims on the bus were not from the area and were on a visit to Rakhine state. They suggested those killed may not have been the perpetrators of the reported rape and murder.
In a joint statement, eight overseas-based Rohingya rights groups condemned the attack on “Muslim pilgrims”, which they said came after months of anti-Rohingya propaganda stirred up by “extremists and xenophobes”.
A spokesman for the coalition, Tun Khin, said that although those killed were not ethnic Rohingyas, the groups were concerned about the plight of Muslims in Myanmar. They called on the government to treat Muslims fairly and tackle “Rakhine terrorism”.
Residents were also on edge after the Sittwe demonstration. Shopkeeper Thein Kyaw said the protest erupted outside a police station after hired thugs attacked and detained business operators who refused to pay over-inflated taxes.
Demonstrations were extremely rare under Myanmar’s former military rulers but are becoming more frequent as the public voices discontent over issues such as land ownership and chronic power shortages, which led to peaceful marches by hundreds of people in several towns and cities last month.
Legalization of public protests is among reforms implemented by President Thein Sein, a former junta general.
But the speedy moves to liberalize are a test of the security forces’ tolerance of dissent in the former Burma. The changing political landscape has also seen Internet and media censorship significantly reduced.
Hla Saw, secretary general of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, blamed the state government for “mismanagement” of the tax issue and said his party was due to meet state officials to try to resolve the conflict.
Additional reporting by Andrew R. C. Marshall in Bangkok; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Robert Birsel