SITTWE, BURMA In a new episode of anti-Muslim violence, Burma Buddhists have been targeting Kaman Muslims who are officially recognized as citizens, shifting the anti-Rohingya attacks from racist to religious tensions.
"I don't know why they attacked us," Ma Yay Phyu, a 74-year-old Burmese Muslim Kaman, told Voice of America on Thursday, November 29.
"We never fought with them before. We used to live together in the same village."
The elderly woman had to fled, along with her family, communal fighting in Rakhine state by boat.
The small boat sank and four family members died, including her husband.
She is among the 100,000 Muslims who were forcibly 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.
Described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, Rohingya Muslims are facing a catalogue of discrimination in their homeland.
They have been denied citizenship rights since an amendment to the citizenship laws in 1982 and are treated as illegal immigrants in their own home.
The Burmese government as well as the Buddhist majority refuse to recognize the term Rohingya, referring to them as Bengalis.
In the latest wave of anti-Muslim violence, which erupted last October 21, at least 84 people have been killed and 129 others injured in deadly clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
Official figures have shown that at least 180 people have been killed in deadly clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine since June.
The violence has displaced nearly 29,000 people, more than 97 percent of whom are Rohingya Muslims, according to the United Nations.
Many now live in camps, adding to 75,000 mostly Rohingya displaced in June.
Human rights groups have accused Burmese police and troops of disproportionate use of force and arrests of Rohingyas in the wake of the riots.
Human Rights Watch has accused Burmese security forces of targeting Rohingya Muslims with killing, rape and arrest following the unrest.
Though Kaman are officially recognized as Burmese Muslim minority, many Rakhine Buddhists fail to distinguish between Rohingya and Kaman.
"Bengalis created the problem. Local [Kaman] Muslims also created the problem. They both are the same," May Kyaw Mar, 55, said.
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."
Facing world condemnations, President Thein Sein rebuked Buddhist leaders for anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Yet, Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing rejects the view that tensions have become religious.
"This is not a religious problem. This is not about ethnicity," Myaing noted.
I believe that only some extremist groups are creating the problems from behind the scenes.
Aye Nu Sein, spokeswoman for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, also denied 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.'"
Facing repeated attacks and mosque fires, ethnic Kaman and religious leaders defied Buddhist claims, confirming that the clashes have changed from racist to religious.
"If the government cannot control it, violence might happen again," U Thar Din, a Muslim religious leader, 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."