RANGOON — Burmese officials have wasted no time in attempting to quash rumors that a fire that killed 13 students at a Muslim boarding school in Rangoon’s Botahtaung Township early Tuesday morning had been deliberately set.
“Some people are saying that the school was torched, but it isn’t true. What the investigators found when they got there was that it was caused by an electrical fault,” said Rangoon Division Chief Minister Myint Swe at a hastily organized press conference on Tuesday.
The chief minister said that the victims of the fire had all died of asphyxiation as a result of smoke inhalation, and that the rumors of arson had been spread to “cover the negligence” of those responsible for the children’s safety.
Rangoon Division Police Chief Win Naing confirmed that the fire and the deaths of the children were being treated as cases of criminal negligence, and that charges would be laid against two boarding-school masters.
“The fire at the school was not started by outsiders. Private security personnel guarding the area told us that they didn’t see any strangers in the neighborhood last night,” the police chief added.
The fire at the two-story school began at around 3 am and was extinguished within around 15 minutes, according to Myint Aye, an official from the township fire brigade. “There was no explosion, so the fire didn’t cause much devastation. Only the interior was damaged, including the upstairs floor,” he said.
The victims—who were among 73 boys residing at the school—are all believed to have been in their early teens or younger.
Police officials who spoke to The Irrawaddy confirmed the government’s version of what happened.
“According to our preliminary investigation, we believe that an electrical fault in a voltage step-up transformer inside the school caused the fire,” said Police Lt-Col Myint Aung. “We are now embarking on a thorough inquiry.”
However, people close to the school say they continue to believe that there may have been some foul play.
“The fire broke out under the staircase, where we found some pieces of diesel-soaked cloth near a ladder,” said Win Myint, a former student who went into the school immediately after the fire was put out.
“Yes, we suspect it may have been arson,” said another former student who asked not to be named.
To allay such suspicions, the Rangoon Division government met with five Muslim groups on Tuesday morning to form an investigation commission, Chief Minister Myint Swe said at today’s press conference.
Haj. Kyaw Soe, the secretary of the All Burma Moulvi Federation, said his organization would cooperate with the government to find out the cause of the blaze. He said, however, that it was still too soon to accept the government’s preliminary findings.
“I feel it is too early to say if this was caused by an electrical fault. It would be better to investigate first to know the root cause of this fire,” he said.