Panicked residents of Mandalay pulled their children from schools on Wednesday as false rumors spread that violence had broken out between Buddhists and Muslims in the latest incidence of religious tension to wrack Burma.
Rumors that Maha Aung Myay Township’s State High School No. 3, where most of the students are Muslim, had been attacked and set on fire began to spread in the early afternoon, worrying parents and prompting them to gather in front of the school to retrieve their children. The crowd blocked the road and alarmed residents of the surrounding neighborhood.
“A rumor that the school was set on fire was spread. Then the parents came and police had to clear the way and security [measures] were taken. The rumors, the road blocks and the security scared the neighbors,” said a man who lives near the high school.
The man told The Irrawaddy that the rumors reached Pyigyidagun and Chanmyathazi townships in the southern part of the city, causing panic there as well. Schools in Myit Thar and other nearby townships were also affected.
“Rumors here were that there was a fire,” said Ko Shwe Maung from Pyigyidagun Township. “As people were worrying about the fire, a rumor was spread that a Buddhist child was struck by a car driven by a Muslim man, so that some angry people gathered and argued … and people were worrying that there might be conflicts so parents were trying to pull their children from school.”
He said shirtless men on motorcycles were later seen wielding iron rods and shouting through the streets in some parts of town, heightening tensions.
“Those men were shouting that there was a fire. People were scared and worrying that communal conflict would happen,” he added.
By the afternoon, the situation in Mandalay had returned to normal, with a small contingent of police officers guarding State High School No. 3 as well as other schools in the city.
An official from the Mandalay district administration office told The Irrawaddy that nothing serious had happened and that security forces had fanned out to control the situation and ensure that further unrest was prevented.
The tensions on Wednesday did not escalate to the point of previous altercations between Buddhists and Muslims. Just last week in Lashio, Shan State, one man was killed and more than 1,000 Muslims were displaced after a Muslim man allegedly set fire to a Buddhist woman, sparking anti-Muslim reprisals.
Larger-scale violence also took place in March, in central Burma’s Meikhtila, and last year more than 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims in western Arakan State, were displaced in two bouts of violence there. Hundreds have died over the last year in the recurring spates of religious violence.