RANGOON — Muslims hiding out in Rangoon say they are among more than 100 followers of Islam who fled religious violence in Arakan State’s Thandwe Township last week to seek refuge in Burma’s biggest city.
An argument between an Arakanese Buddhist and a Muslim in Thandwe spiraled out of control on Sept. 29 and eventually led to the spread of violence in surrounding villages over the next three days. Five Muslims were killed and more than 100 houses were burned to the ground.
Zaw Moe Win, a Kaman Muslim, was among those who fled Thandwe last week. He told The Irrawaddy that he booked a flight out of the coastal town, opting not to take the cheaper overland route from Thandwe to Rangoon for fear of his safety.
“There are at least 100 of our Muslims who fled from Thandwe and came to Rangoon. It was crowded on the flight the day I flew [Oct. 1],” said Zaw Moe Win.
“I am hiding my whole family here,” said Kyaw Lin, another Kaman Muslim man from Thandwe who also fled to Rangoon. “I am staying at my relatives’ house. All my property remains in Thandwe. I have almost run out of money now.”
However, many Muslims in Thandwe remain in the town, unwilling or unable to pay for a flight or bus ticket elsewhere. Many of those whose houses were razed are living with friends or relatives in the area.
Following the first outbreak of violence in Arakan State in June 2012, several other townships across Burma were similarly plagued by clashes between Buddhists and Muslims. Often the violence has been triggered by rumors of Muslim men allegedly raping Buddhist women. The Thandwe violence, however, reportedly stemmed from an argument between a Buddhist motorcycle taxi driver and a Muslim man.
About 90 percent of the country’s population of 55 million is Buddhist, and Muslims are estimated to comprise some 5 percent.
Rangoon, Burma’s former capital, is a multiethnic melting pot where Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus have lived side by side for generations.
Most Muslims who fled Thandwe have taken refuge in Rangoon’s “Mingalar Market” neighborhood, where police occasionally crack down on individuals living there illegally. Several dozen people were detained for unauthorized residency in recent months.
Despite the risk of being arrested, Zaw Moe Win said Rangoon offered a less threatening environment than Thandwe.
“I found in Yangon that there is no discrimination against Muslims. The neighborhood where I stay in Yangon, I find that it is all right. They [Buddhists] do not look down on me or cause problems,” said Zaw Moe Win.
“We can sleep and eat very well here. I feel it is very safe to stay in Yangon,” he added.
The proportion of Muslims in Rangoon is larger than across Burma as a whole, as is the case in Thandwe. Zaw Moe Win and Kyaw Lin are not the first to seek refuge in Rangoon, with the city seeing new arrivals with each new inter-communal flare-up over the last 15 months as Muslims leave conflict-torn hometowns and villages for the prospect of a more welcoming day-to-day life.
Anxiety has nonetheless been stoked from time to time among the Muslim community in Rangoon as anti-Muslim violence has broken out in villages outside of the city, including in Okkan Township in late April and last week in Kyaung Gone, Irrawaddy Division, the latter of which was again reportedly sparked by rumors of rape. An informal Muslim neighborhood watch has sprung up in Rangoon, with an organized group of Muslim men posted at night, on alert for any possible threats.
The situation in Thandwe has stabilized, but bus ticket sales back to the town have reportedly been restricted, according to the Yangon Times. The Burmese-language daily reported on Tuesday that fears that the road to Thandwe from Rangoon might be blocked by instigators of violence had prompted the move to reject Muslim bus passengers.
Zaw Moe Win confirmed the restricted sales, having once been denied the overland travel option by a bus ticket sales associate.
“She asked me if I was a Muslim, and I said I was Muslim, and she was afraid to sell a ticket to me,” Zaw Moe Win said.
“It is safe to be in Rangoon, but some rumors of violence happening near Rangoon, this makes me worry sometimes,” said Kyaw Lin, adding that he would return to Thandwe only when he felt is safety was assured.