Current News

    After Rumors, Rangoon Muslims Fear Attacks

    A heavily intoxicated and
    drug-affected youth clenches a broken brick on Sunday as he surveys the
    smoldering remains of one of Meikhtila’s Muslim neighborhoods, which was razed
    by rioters last week. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

    Irrawaddy News:
    March 26, 2013
    RANGOON — Fear gripped
    Rangoon’s Muslim communities on Sunday night after reports and rumors began to
    emerge that groups of rioters were planning to attack their neighborhoods.
    Muslim residents reacted by closing shops and holding nighttime patrols, but
    eventually there were few incidents in Burma’s biggest city.
    Over the weekend the
    violence directed at Islamic communities spread southward through Mandalay
    Division from Meikhtila Township, where 8,000 Muslims were displaced and dozens
    people were killed after violence erupted last Wednesday.
    Some Islamic leaders and
    Burmese activists now allege that the rapidly spreading communal violence—which
    appears to pit Buddhists against Muslims—is in fact being incited by outside
    interests.
    On Sunday night, reports
    and rumors that groups of anti-Muslim rioters were on their way to Muslim
    neighborhoods in central Rangoon first began to appear. Around midnight an
    unidentified group allegedly tried to set fire to buildings in Ma U Gone, a
    Muslim quarter in Tamwe Township, according to local resident Tha Aye.
    “It was near midnight,
    around seven or eight people came in a van and tried to set buildings on fire.
    When people tried to catch them they ran away,” said Tha Aye, who is also
    chairman of the Union National Development Party, an Islamic political
    organization.
    “They threw [Molotov
    cocktails] at a mosque but it was in vain,” he said, adding that the attackers
    revisited the area more than one hour later, but they were chased away by
    residents who carried knives and sticks.
    News of the incident
    quickly reached other Islamic communities who formed vigilante groups to patrol
    the streets, according to Aye Lwin, a Muslim representative from Burma’s
    Interfaith Friendship Organization.
    At around 3 am Monday
    morning Muslim crowds could be heard chanting ‘God is Great’ as they marched
    through central Rangoon’s Pabedan Township.
    Residents of Mingalar Taung
    Nyunt Township, a predominantly Muslim market area, were also on alert after
    they received repeated anonymousphone calls on Sunday night, saying that the
    area would be the target of mobs.
    Businesses in the area
    remained closed during a visit by a reporter on Monday. “We want the government
    to help stop these rumors and reassure the community’s safety,” local community
    leader Khin Hlaing said.
    Some Muslim leaders
    believed that the violence directed at their communities was being orchestrated
    by outsiders. “In my opinion, a group of people is trying to instigate public
    unrest by targeting Muslim people,” Aye Lwin said.
    Tha Aye alleged that
    elements in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party were involved in
    the supposed organization of the anti-Muslim riots, adding that they wanted to
    hinder President Thein Sein’s political and socio-economic reform agenda.
    “I learned that there are
    still some hardliners in the ruling party who are against the reform. I was
    told they’ve hired some thugs on daily wages to fan the unrest,” he said.
    “Because the riots can halt the government’s reforms.”
    Min Ko Naing, a prominent
    leader of the respected activist group 88 Generation Students, said residents
    in Meikhtila town had told him that they did not recognize any members of the
    marauding mobs that ransacked Muslim neighborhoods.
    “They have intentionally
    formed groups and organized violence against the people,” he said, adding that
    the alleged instigators had moved south through Mandalay Division over the
    weekend. “Now they’ve come to Rangoon, spreading rumors that some religious buildings
    are being destroyed,” he said.
    The Irrawaddy asked police
    in Meikhtila and other violence-hit townships this weekend whether outsiders
    had incited the communal violence, but officers said that they were still
    investigating what sparked the riots.
    A senior officer at
    Meikhtila District Police Office said on Monday that the overall death toll of
    riots in Meikhtila Township had risen to 40, while 68 people were reportedly
    wounded as a result of the unrest.
    He said 16 people were
    detained on suspicions that they had been involved in last week’s killings,
    adding, “According to our [police] reports about the riots, we need to arrest
    100 more.” The officer, who declined to be named as he was not authorized to
    speak to the media, said police were currently studying photos and video
    footage of the riots.
    Calm returned to Meikhtila
    after a state of emergency was declared in Mandalay Division’s Meikhtila,
    Wundwin, Mahlaing and Thazi townships on Friday afternoon and military units
    moved in.
    More than 8,000 Muslim
    residents fled the town last week and their properties and mosques were set on
    fire. They are now living in makeshift refugee camps with little emergency aid.
    On the weekend, the
    violence spread south to Ywa Tan village, Yamethin Township, about 50 km from
    Meikhtila, and onwards to the towns of Tatkone and Lewei, not far from Burma’s
    capital Naypyidaw.
    Dozens of Muslim-owned
    buildings and mosques were reportedly ransacked in the towns over the weekend,
    but there few details on how many people were killed or injured in the latest
    bout of communal violence.
    Members of a leading
    Islamic organization in Burma told a reporter in Rangoon on Saturday that they
    believed that dozens of Muslim residents in these smaller Mandalay Division
    towns were killed or injured.
    In recent days, UN
    officials and US government have expressed their concerns about the communal
    violence and have urged authorities to restore calm in central Burma.