THABYUCHAING, Myanmar (AP) — Buddhist mobs carrying swords and knives swarmed Zaw Lay Khar’s village again and again, clashing with Muslims and burning their homes. When she saw about 40 attackers approaching her home, she fled with her daughter but had to leave behind her 94-year-old mother.
“They set the house on fire. There was nothing we could do but run. We didn’t have time to help her,” she said Thursday near her charred home, in the village of Thabyuchaing in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The attack had been two days earlier, but smoke still rose from the ruined buildings.
Rakhine was home to much of the sectarian violence that has killed hundreds of people since June 2012. Violence that began Sunday in Rakhine’s Thandwe township left five people dead, all of them Muslims, and at least 100 homes burned to the ground in three villages there, according to police Sgt. Aung Naing Win. He said at least one person was missing.
The dead included Aye Kyi, the elderly mother of Zaw Lay Khar, a 62-year-old woman with sunken eyes. She returned to her destroyed home after the mobs left and found Aye Kyi’s body — six cuts on her stomach, neck and head.
In the nearby village of Pauktaw, Associated Press journalists visiting the area saw several women weeping near the charred remains of 40 torched houses. In another nearby village also hit by arson, a passing group of travelers said they had been attacked by angry Muslim residents, and had escaped with injuries.
The latest bloodshed went on even as President Thein Sein arrived in the region for a visit that wrapped up Thursday. The violence has thrown new attention on the government’s failure to stop the unrest, which has displaced more than 140,000 people, the majority of them Muslims in this heavily Buddhist country.
Thein Sein has been widely praised for overseeing an unprecedented political opening in the Southeast Asian nation since the army ceded power two years ago to a nominally civilian government led by retired military officers.
But rights groups also accuse his government of tolerating, or even abetting, what they describe as ethnic cleansing directed against Muslims in Myanmar, also known as Burma. They say authorities have done little to crack down on religious intolerance and failed to bridge a divide that has left hundreds of thousands of Muslims marginalized and segregated, many of them confined by security forces in inadequately equipped camps after fleeing their homes.
Thein Sein paid a visit to the region this week for the first time since the unrest began. He visited Thandwe and left Thursday after meeting Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders.
State television broadcast a statement Wednesday night from the president expressing sadness over the loss of life and destruction of property. The statement said both communities suffered casualties but it did not give numbers.
“At a time the government is striving for stability and rule of law, such violence is not only a loss to Rakhine state but also to the country,” the statement said. It added that the government would try its best to end the conflict, to expose and to bring to justice the perpetrators and to rebuild homes that were destroyed.
Most of those targeted in Rakhine state have been ethnic Rohingya Muslims, considered by many in the country to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh, though many of their families arrived generations ago. But the victims in this week’s violence were Kaman, a Muslim minority group whose citizenship is recognized.
Hla Sein, a Muslim speaking at a house in Thandwe on Wednesday, blamed ultranationalist Buddhists for sowing divisions between Buddhists and Muslims, who he said had lived together peacefully until recently. He said the president has not done enough to stop it.
“It’s just a political game,” Hla Sein said. “The president is the most responsible person in the country. Up until now, when Muslim people have been killed, their property destroyed, he’s been silent.”
Two of his cousins’ houses were burned down a day ahead of Thein Sein’s arrival. Witnesses said soldiers and police made no effort to stop the violence.
Thursday night’s state television news, which also reported a death toll of five, said the ethnic Rakhine and Kaman people had lived peacefully for many years and blamed migrant laborers from other villages for the violence. The assertion echoed accounts given by several Muslim residents.
In what amounted to a rare criticism of popular nationalistic Buddhist organizations that rights groups accuse of fanning the flames of religious and ethnic hatred, the report said some organizations had distributed religious flags that some Buddhists flew in front of their homes to keep the mobs from attacking them.
It said the authorities are trying to expose those who used the religious flags for such wrongful purposes.
Muslims, who account for about 4 percent of Myanmar’s roughly 60 million people, have been the main victims of the violence, but they have been prosecuted for crimes related to the clashes far more often than members of the Buddhist majority.
Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win in Yangon contributed to this report.