Yangon - Myanmar's government denied Friday that a Buddhist mob ripped through a town in an isolated strife-torn corner of the country this week, attacking Muslim women and children. Villagers and a rights group said more than a dozen people may have been killed, and that hundreds have fled their homes.
"We have had no information about killings," Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut told reporters on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Nations Foreign Ministers' meeting in Myanmar's ancient city of Bagan.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people, has been grappling with sectarian violence for nearly two years. More than 240 people have been killed and another 250 000 forced to flee their homes, most of them Muslims from the western state of Rakhine.
The northern tip of the state, where Tuesday's violence occurred, is home to 80% of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims, considered by the UN to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The region is also one of the most isolated in the country, with access to foreign journalists and humanitarian aid workers almost always either denied or heavily restricted.
Chris Lewa of the Thailand-based Arakan Project, an advocacy group that has been documenting abuses against Rohingya for more than a decade, said details about the violence in Du Char Yar Tan village were still emerging, with many conflicting reports.
The death toll could be anywhere from 10 to 60, said Lewa, whose sources range from a village administrator to witnesses. One described the slashed-up bodies of three acquaintances - two women and a 14-year-old boy - found in their homes.
Tensions have been building in the region since last month, when monks from a Buddhist extremist movement known as 969 arrived and started giving sermons by loudspeaker advocating the expulsion of all Rohingya.
One resident said by phone that an initial flare-up followed the discovery of three bodies in a ditch near Du Char Yar Tan village by several firewood collectors.
Believing they were among several Rohingya who went missing after being detained by authorities, they alerted friends and neighbours, who returned with their cellphones to take pictures, said the man, who works as a volunteer English teacher. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals.
Crowd turned on police
That night, five police officers went to the village to confiscate the phones and check family lists, but the crowd turned on the officers, beating and chasing them off, said the man. The police returned at 02:00, saying one of the officers had gone missing, accusing villagers of either abducting or killing him.
That triggered a security crackdown.
Soldiers and police surrounded Du Char Yar Tan, breaking down doors and looting livestock and other valuables, the English teacher said. Worried they would be arrested, all the men fled, leaving the women, children and elderly behind.
Lewa said her sources reported that Rohingya women and children had been hacked to death, but the numbers varied widely.
That some of the victims appeared to have been stabbed with knives, not shot or beaten, "would clearly indicate the massacre was committed by [Buddhist] Rakhine villagers, rather than the police or army," the Arakan Project wrote in a briefing Thursday.
The English teacher said 17 women and five children were killed. Another resident put the toll at 11.
Ye Htut, the deputy information minister, said the "reports might be a cover-up, because of the policeman going missing."
Shwe Maung, a Muslim Lower House lawmaker who represents Buthidaung Township for the Union Solidarity and Development Party, told the local news agency Irrawaddy he had received conflicting reports about the numbers of casualties.
"A lot of people are missing," he said. "Normally when they are missing family members, Rohingya people think they are dead."
Some of the Rohingya in northern Rakhine descend from families that have been there for generations. Others arrived more recently from neighbouring Bangladesh. All have been denied citizenship, rendering them stateless.