Burma’s Buddhists and Muslims Divided by Fire

Within hours of the fatal fire that killed 13 children at a mosque in Rangoon early Tuesday morning, three explanations began circulating among people in the area about its possible cause. The first was that it was sparked by an electrical short; the second, that it was an act of arson; and the third, that it was set by radical Muslims to provoke outrage against Buddhists.

Setting aside the last theory, which was accepted by only a tiny handful of conspiratorially-minded Buddhists in the neighborhood, the other two explanations represent, on the one hand, the official version of events, and on the other, a view that betrays the deep-seated distrust that has grown between Burma’s Buddhist and Muslim communities.

When Irrawaddy reporters, including myself, arrived at the scene, we saw that the street leading to the mosque had been blocked and that riot police had been sent as precaution against possible unrest. There were even army trucks full of soldiers on the main road nearby, ready to move in if necessary.

Most of the bystanders were Muslims, looking stern and suspicious. Several journalists, including foreign ones, were interviewing the authorities and witnesses.

I asked Win Myint, a Muslim businessman, about what he thought caused the fire. Standing in front of the blue Islamic school on 48th Street, he pointed to a window and said that a bundle of fuel-soaked cloth could easily have been dropped through it by anyone with a bamboo pole.

As a former student of the school, Win Myint hurried to the scene when he heard the tragic news of the fire. He arrived shortly after dawn, and like many of the other Muslims gathered there, he entered the building soon after the fire was extinguished in search of evidence that it had been deliberately set.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Pulling out his smartphone, he showed me photos that he said strongly suggested foul play.

“See,” he said. “We found this pile of women’s clothing soaked with diesel near the window.” He added that he also found an iron bar—although it was not clear what role it might have played in the criminal act that he was strongly implying had taken place. It was also unclear that the bundle of cloth he had discovered were “women’s clothing”—something that would have been very incriminating, as all the students inside the school were boys.

When police officer Thet Lwin, who arrived at the scene before dawn, declared after a cursory investigation that the fire was triggered by an electrical short “and not due to any criminal activity,” the crowd was furious.

“Every time he mentioned the word ‘electrical short,’ angry Muslims shouted and began banging on vehicles with their fists,” according to a report by AP.

In stark contrast to the conviction held by many Muslims that the fire was no accident, many local Buddhists I spoke to said they didn’t believe it was possible that fire was caused by arson.

“It’s impossible. You should ask our private security personnel who take care of this street at night,” said members of a family who lived next to the mosque, speaking from behind a locked iron door.

Myint Aung, one of three Burmese security guards who were on duty that night, said he was the first person outside the mosque to notice the fire inside. “When I tried to wake up the people inside, there was no response,” he said. “I don’t know what they were doing. Perhaps trying to put out the fire themselves.”

“There were no strangers around here before then, and we were always alert. We didn’t see anything suspicious, as they have suggested,” he said, referring to rumors circulating among members of the local Muslim community.

Myint Aung, who has worked as a guard for 10 years, added that the school often gave him food for his supper.

Still, even some Buddhists found it difficult to believe that the fire was accidental. The fact that it occurred so soon after anti-Muslims in Meikhtila and parts of Pegu Division made many wonder whether the school fire was part of this recent wave of sectarian violence.

This is no doubt why the government was so quick to react, holding not one but two press conferences  in an effort to reassure the public that the fire was not related to the violence that began late last month.

The state-run broadcaster, MRTV, reported many details of the ongoing investigation, and carried interviews with Muslim leaders, eyewitnesses, electricians, fire department officials and police officers.

During the first press conference, Rangoon Division Chief Minister Myint Swe stated categorically that the fire was accidental, and accused school officials of blaming it on an act of malice to cover up their own neglect. Later the same day, he reiterated the official stance that the fire was caused by an electrical short, and said that one of the school’s teachers, Zeya Phyo, had admitted to starting rumors about its cause. A second teacher, he said, was still at large and being sought by police for questioning.

For Burma’s Muslims, however, this isn’t likely to be the end of the story. Muslim leaders have vowed to cooperate with the investigation, but even if the final report shows no evidence of wrongdoing, suspicions will continue to linger among the country’s Muslims that they have once again been targeted because of their religion.

Sadly, while most Buddhists have readily accepted the government’s version of what happened, Burmese Muslims will remain convinced that the 13 children who died on Tuesday were victims of a hate crime. Whichever side is right, one thing is abundantly clear: trust between Burma’s Buddhist majority and Muslim minority is at an all-time low, and could take a very long time to recover.

14 Responses to Burma’s Buddhists and Muslims Divided by Fire

  1. “Pulling out his smartphone, he ( win Myint) showed me photos that he said strongly suggested foul play.’
    Cheer irrawaddy becasue irrawaddy has photo proof which shows foul play.

    “When Irrawaddy reporters, including myself, arrived at the scene, we saw that the street leading to the mosque had been blocked and that riot police had been sent as precaution against possible unrest. There were even army trucks full of soldiers on the main road nearby, ready to move in if necessary.”

    It shows that than shwe and USDP have already knew that incident ahead for thier cruel killing plan on Muslim children. Killing innocent Muslim is from the book of 969 , designed by faked monk, wirathu, supported by USDP and than shwe.

  2. Please allow me to commend you for your many outstanding articles and especially this one. In depth interviews, observations of the immediate atmosphere and objective analyses made the article a winning reportage.

    The police made a big mistake to allow strangers to enter the crime scene before all the evidences were collected and secured. Besides, authorities blundered to make one-sided investigations and put forward accusations at hastily called press conferences without the cooperation and participation of Muslim groups. However much they have good intentions, lingering doubts will exist because of self-created mistakes. I hope they have learned their lessons now.

    Kudos to you for your distinguished journalism!

    • The police , around the world is professional whether those polices are from developed or or under developed or developing country. It is not the excuse that police does not know their own procedures ( evidence, security) or their jobs in the respect of their professionalism. Do you want to say that doctor from Burma does not know how to greet , register and treat the patient in case of emergency and accidence or else after their study and training in university ? Do all the Burmese polices train from the DSA ( defense service academy) or OTS? If so, it has a excuse for police because DSA or OTS train persons how to kill and rape the all ethics as well as how to dishonor Panglong agreement.

  3. Interview with 48 St Harfeez school kids. Pls listen and judge yourself.


  4. government authority should find the culprit but did cover the crime committed by radical follower like wiratu& gang.there is many theory invented by authority to safeguard the criminal thinking whole world is fool to believe them.even there is threat by police department to Muslim community in Yangon to accept wrong version of police explanation although Muslim have eye witness that indeed foul take place to losing 13 under age innocent religious student life.Muslim community in Burma should satisfy them-self that 13 life are the same as you are losing hundred thousand of Muslim life through out the country in the hand of extremist rakhine magh,Buddhist thugs,government force.

    • ” hundred thousand of Muslim life through out the country in the hand of extremist rakhine magh,Buddhist thugs,government force.”
      Prove it , where are the dead bodies of these Muslims. Had the government hide some where in the country or exported to China.

  5. Now it is confirmed that the fire was cause by electrical fire. Creditability of Irrawaddy’s report is in question.

    • It was confirmed by Burman police who did not even try to stop Buddhist thugs killing burmese Muslims? And they found the cause of fire in a few days whilst the rakhine-rohingya conflict from last year is still under investigation? Looks like the cause of fire was per-determined even before the fire broke out. Even cooking a bowl of noodle in a microwave takes longer than the Burman police’s detective work.

  6. One cannot blame the Muslims for their suspicions.
    But it does not necessarily mean their suspicions can be substantiated: just venting out would relieve them of their fire, the fire from within, that of anger caused by suspicion (and hate, may be), within. But religions teach anti-hate and forbearance. So one must beware and be conscious of one’s own fallacy as and when extreme emotions such as anger and hate arise. An angry mind cannot find and identify the right answer, leave alone following up the answer so found.
    Muslims just as much as Buddhists need to understand that the only alternative to violence is peaceful co-existence, hate and malice being overwhelmed by generous hearts, For suspicions due to malice or hate are more likely to be fatal errors: they have never done any good to any one or any community for that matter. So the best way to access harmony among human beings is to cool down and think hard to find the hard truth.
    Tell you what. We are here on earth only for a short while. Why can’t we make our life worthwhile to live, free of hate, malice and so, happy.
    Not easy?. Well, try it!
    Kindly don’t be misled by self-seekers and instigators with political or neo-Nazi purposes.

  7. “DIOS MERA!”
    Heaven Witnessed!
    Heaven’s Respite!
    Heaven Is The Final Judge!
    Nemesis Awaits!

    nb: KZMoe THANKS!

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