When we tried to get a boat to Kyaukpyu (pronounced Chalk Pew), the ticket agent said: “Sorry no foreigners allowed there”.

We persisted however, and eventually got someone to take us there because there was something in this coastal town in Burma’s north western Rakhine State that we really needed to see.

Two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch released “before and after” satellite photos of a sizeable district in Kyaukpyu called Pyitha. The first image showed a typical, if overcrowded, Burmese neighbourhood. In the second picture however, the detail had vanished – no roads or buildings – just a wash of white and black.

It’s suggested that the homes and businesses of some 10,000 people had been raised to the ground – and it was Pyitha, or what remained of it, that we wanted to visit.

The devastation there was total and it was absolutely shocking. We asked local Buddhists what happened and they told us the Muslims who lived here burnt their own houses down. Such remarks are scarcely credible – I cannot see why they would set fire to their own mosques for example, and that is exactly what we saw. 

Still, such comments reflect the deeply entrenched hatred that many Buddhists and Muslims feel for each other in Rakhine State. That hatred has manifested itself in months of violence here, principally between ethnic Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya minority.

It started in June as a fight between rival mobs, but observers and critics are now accusing the Buddhist population of a deliberate and organised attempt to expel the Rohingya from their homes and property – ethnic cleansing is another way to describe this, of course, and it should be noted that more than 100,000 Rohingya now live in refugee camps dotted throughout the state.

But the people who lived in Pyitha are not Rohingya – they are from another Muslim group called the Kaman. It is a worrying development because it suggests this conflict is spreading – that all Muslims in this part of the country are at risk.

We managed to find thousands of Kyaukpyu former residents, living on fishing boats or under lean-tos on their remote island off the coast. Conditions were cramped and uncomfortable and food was scarce. They were traumatised by their experience and said the Burmese army had colluded with the local population, to drive them out of their homes.

One man called Hla Myint said an army colonel gave them 30 minutes to leave. Thousands of panicked residents rushed to the shore and climbed on boats. Those vessels in the water left immediately, but there weren’t enough to go around so others climbed into boats still stranded by the tide. Hla Myint says these crafts were surrounded by Buddhists who stoned them and used sling shots. The Kaman men kept them at bay he said, while the tide slowly rose and eventually they made their escape.

A police source told us more than 20 people died in Kyaukpyu but no one seems sure what the exact number is. The incident itself has been met with official indifference. The opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the only person with real moral authority in Burma, said there was nothing she could do last weekend. Without leadership and proper dialogue, however, this crisis is going to get worse.

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