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.