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January 29, 2014

Fire in Western Burma Sparks More Controversy in Tense Area

by VOA News

A fire in western Burma, also known as Myanmar, is again sparking controversy near the site of alleged attacks against Muslims this month.

Officials say the fire broke out late Tuesday in Ducheertan Western Village, which is part of the township of Maungdaw.

No one was hurt and no arrests have been made, but Maungdaw Township Police Chief Shwe Than told VOA the villagers themselves were responsible for the blaze.

"Sixteen houses were burned down. Four bigger houses and 12 small houses. The fire is arson.  They must have been instructed from above to set the village on fire. There are only women and children in the village, so it seems someone had a hand in getting them to start the fire. We saw flammable materials placed on top of the huts. They started the fire themselves. There's no reason for anyone from the outside to start the fire," said Than.

However, a Muslim from a nearby village, who did not want VOA to use his name, cast doubt on the police version.

"The police made such allegations, as they themselves are in charge of security of the villages," he said. "No one from outside can enter the villages, so it is very convenient for them to say 'it's the villagers that started the fire'. Just think, who will burn down their own houses?"

The Burmese government has denied reports that Muslims were killed in an attack this month in nearby Ducheertan Central Village.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin told reporters that President Thein Sein has ordered an independent investigation committee to probe the situation.

U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell welcomed the investigation, but said it is critical for it to be seen as fair and impartial.

"It sounds like the government is saying the event never took place, and we know what happened, but we're going to do a new, independent investigation. The fact is, certainly from what we've heard today, suggests the facts are in dispute," said Mitchell.

Details remain unclear about an incident that occurred in the early morning hours of January 14. Locals say they were unfairly targeted by security personnel, and then driven from their homes by a mob. But the government insists that a policeman was kidnapped by the villagers, and then likely killed.

Since then, rights groups have interviewed people who say as many as 60 people, nearly all of them ethnic Rohingya, died when security forces and ethnic Rakhine villagers retaliated for the kidnapping. The government has said the Rohingya are alive but fled their village after the policeman’s death.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Burmese service.