RANGOON—Anti-Muslim riots spread further southward through central Burma on Monday night, as unidentified attackers ransacked Islamic neighborhoods in two towns in Pegu Division. President Thein Sein’s government meanwhile, announced that it was taking measures to stem the violence and safeguard its reform agenda.
Muslim neighborhoods in Okpho and Gyobingauk, two small towns located about 200 km (125 miles) north of Rangoon in Pegu Division, bore the brunt of the latest attacks.
A local resident named San Lwin said that around 9 pm Monday night a group of men ransacked a mosque, buildings and shops in Okpho. “Nearly 60 buildings were destroyed. The rampage was going on until 4 in the morning. We went into hiding,” he told The Irrawaddy by phone.
An officer at Gyobingauk police station said that unidentified attackers began razing a Muslim neighborhood there at around 11:30 pm Monday and continued until 6 am. The policeman, who declined to be named, said that no casualties had been reported so far, adding that police investigations were ongoing.
Kyaw Khin, chief secretary of the All Burma Muslim Federation, said about 30 houses and one mosque were destroyed in Gyobingauk, while several shops were looted. “I was told that the attackers used a bulldozer from a nearby timber company to destroy the mosque in Gyobingauk,” he said.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the local government imposed a dusk-till-dawn curfew in Gyobingauk and Okpho towns to prevent further unrest, according to police.
On Monday night, President Thein Sein’s government tried to assuage the growing domestic and international concerns over the spread of anti-Muslim attacks in central Burma. The government said it would take all necessary measures to restore calm and to safeguard its reform agenda.
“The government will make an earnest effort to control and address all forms of violence, including instigations that lead to racial and religious tensions,” it announced on state-run television Monday night.
“Currently, the government is making concerted efforts in democratic reform and development undertakings with added momentum. That’s why people are urged to avoid acts of violence and religious extremism that could disrupt the reform process,” the statement said.
In recent days the violence directed at Islamic communities spread southward from Mandalay Division’s Meikhtila Township, where riots erupted on March 22. More than 8,000 Muslims were displaced and at least 40 people were killed in the town. The displaced townspeople are staying in makeshift camps with little in the way of emergency aid.
On Friday, a state of emergency was declared in the Meikthila region and military units moved in to restore calm. Several Mandalay Division towns were subsequently targeted and on Sunday rumors spread that Rangoon’s Muslim quarters would be attacked, sparking fear in Burma’s biggest city. No incidents were reported however.
Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said in a Facebook page post on Monday night that people should not be panicked by such rumors.
“There are instigators making the most of people’s worries and strong emotions to cause more unrest. So, people shouldn’t believe rumors, and any suspected activities should be reported to police immediately,” he said, without specifying who the supposed ‘instigators’ are.
Since the riots began there has been a growing suspicion among Muslim leaders and Burmese activists that the violence is being incited by outside interests, which are trying to pit Buddhist and Muslim communities against each other.
Some have suggested that hardliners in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, who oppose Thein Sein’s reform agenda, are paying bands of thugs to attack Muslim areas.
Both the UN and the US have expressed concerns about the ongoing unrest. The UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Burma, Vijay Nambiar, visited violence-hit Meikhtila town on the weekend and on Monday he met with President Thein Sein.
According to state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar, the president assured the UN envoy that, “steps were being taken as soon as possible to take action against those who led the violence and got involved in it, and to expose those who flamed the conflict under the pretext of religion.”