SITTWE, BURMA — Communal fighting in Burma’s western Rakhine State has focused on the plight of the Rohingya, a persecuted and stateless Muslim minority. But the ethnic Kaman, another Muslim group recognized as citizens, were also involved in the clashes, raising concerns of a wider religious conflict.
An earring is all that 74-year-old Muslim Ma Yay Phyu has left. She and her family fled communal fighting in Rakhine state by boat, but it sank and four family members died, including her husband.
“I don’t know why they attacked us,” she recalled. “We never fought with them before. We used to live together in the same village.”
Ma Yay Phyu is among the 100,000 people displaced in Rakhine. But, unlike the vast majority, she is not a Rohingya Muslim, she is Kaman.
Although the Rohingya are rejected by Burma’s Buddhist majority as illegal Bengali migrants, Kaman are a recognized Muslim minority with citizenship rights.
Ethnic Kaman and religious leader U Thar Din says, after mosques were burned down, the clashes changed from racist to religious.
“If the government cannot control it, violence might happen again,” he said. “We will not be patient at all. We are alive to die. Everyone will die one day. Muslims will not be patient at all.”
Many Rakhine Buddhists who sought refuge in temples fail to distinguish between Rohingya and Kaman.
May Kyaw Mar, 55, says the two groups teamed up to attack them and burn their homes.
“Bengalis created the problem. Local [Kaman] Muslims also created the problem. They both are the same.”
Some Buddhist leaders are feeding hatred against Muslims, including the Kaman. U Bat Di Ya, the head monk at the Than Phyu Monastery, uses the ethnic slur “Kular,” meaning dark-skin, to describe Rohingya.
“Kaman are also Kular,” he said. “They are a kind of Kular race. They are the same blood. When incidents happen they unite with Kular, they don’t stay on the Rakhine side.”
President Thein Sein rebuked Buddhist leaders for anti-Muslim rhetoric. Nonetheless, Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing rejects the view that tensions have become religious.
“This is not a religious problem. This is not about ethnicity. I believe that only some extremist groups are creating the problems from behind the scenes,” he noted.
Aye Nu Sein, spokeswoman for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, rejects accusations they instigated violence against Muslims.
“Although Kaman are Muslims, they have the right to be a citizen of the country,” she said. “Some Bengalis pretend to be Kaman, in order to get citizenship by taking advantage of their similarity of religion. We Rakhine call them ‘fake Kaman.'”
Meanwhile, most Kaman say that although they have the right to citizenship, corrupt officials demand high fees that not all can afford.
They also show their prejudice. One woman has a national identification card with “Kaman from Pakistan” written on it by an immigration official, despite her being born in Burma and never having traveled to Pakistan.