MANDALAY — More than a thousand police have been deployed in central Mandalay after clashes between Buddhists and Muslims left more than three people, including one policeman, injured late Tuesday night.
Police officials declined to comment on the situation, but hundreds of barricades could be seen along 26th Street, from the southwest corner of the moat surrounding Mandalay Palace west to Zegyo market, where the clashes took place.
Galoneni Sayadaw and other leading Buddhist monks from Burma’s second largest city attempted to calm down the angry mobs, but without much success.
“We tried our best, but they would not listen. Some of them were drunk and hard to control. Whatever happens to them depends only on their own behavior. We just don’t want to see Mandalay burn because of racial and religious hatred,” Galoneni Sayadaw told reporters at the scene.
As the riot spread late into the night, angry men carrying canes and bricks were seen wandering along 26th Street, between 86th and 81st Streets, where the majority of the city’s Muslims live.
Rioters from both sides used slingshots, stones and pieces of broken brick and concrete to attack each other. When the police came to control the situation, they were accused of siding with the Muslims and pelted with a shower of stones.
Angry Muslim men also threw bricks at police, resulting in minor injuries to two officers. The windshields of some nearby vehicles were also smashed.
Some people, including a couple of monks, prevented journalists from taking pictures, in
some cases forcibly removing memory cards from their cameras. They accused the journalists of bias because they were only taking photos of Buddhist rioters.
The mobs were finally dispersed at around 3 am on Wednesday after more police were deployed along the road.
Stones and broken bricks still covered 26th Street after dawn on Wednesday morning, and a number of signboards had been destroyed. Some old tires that rioters had set on fire were also still smoldering.
Witnesses said the clash began at around 10 pm on Tuesday after a group of Muslim men reportedly slashed three Burmese people on 83rd Street, between 25th and 26th streets.
“We were driving along 83rd Street when about 10 Kalar men carrying swords suddenly ran toward us and started slashing people on the road. My friend’s son, on another motorbike, hurt his shoulder and we had to run for our lives,” said a Buddhist woman, using a derogatory term for Muslims living in Burma .
The woman, who asked not be named, said the boy and two other injured men were sent to hospital when the police arrived and an angry mob suddenly appeared.
“People told us later that the men with the swords were Muslims, but I don’t know what happened. By the time we had escaped, the angry mob, carrying bamboo canes, sticks and stones, had already gathered and started throwing stones at the police,” the woman added.
Riot Fueled by Facebook Rumors?
Although the cause of the initial attack is unknown, it is believed to be linked to reports that have spread widely on Facebook in recent days that a Buddhist maid had been raped by her Muslim employers.
Since the rumors first started to spread on June 28, there have been calls to destroy a teashop owned by the brother of the woman’s employers.
By June 30, fears of an outbreak of violence prompted police to guard the predominantly Muslim neighborhood where the teashop is located. This in turn attracted large crowds of Muslim men, who were later persuaded by the police and Muslim elders to return to their homes.
According to the initial report, the maid was raped while traveling to Naypyidaw with her employers. The incident was reported at a police station in Pyinmana, near where it allegedly occurred.
The owner of the teashop told reporters that his two brothers had been charged with rape and that police in Yamethin Township were searching for them. However, the two accused men fled before they could be arrested, saying they did not believe the case would be handled fairly.
At this point, U Wirathu, a firebrand Buddhist monk who has been accused of stoking anti-Muslim sentiment in Burma through his Buddhist nationalist 969 movement, called the owner of the teashop and told him his brothers should be prepared to face justice.
“He said that if they were really men, they would be willing to face the truth. Later, he called the wife of one of my brothers and told her he would tear down the earth to find them,” the teashop owner said.
U Wirathu later denied making such statements. Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday evening, he said he only advised the teashop owner on how to resolve the tensions peacefully.
“I called him, but didn’t say anything threatening. I just said that things would only get worse if they [the brothers] didn’t come forward and explain what happened,” said U Wirathu.
He added that he first learned of the rape incident online.
“I read about it on the Thit Htoo Lwin blog and didn’t trust it at first. But later we found out that the girl was being kept in protective custody at Yamethin police station and yes, the case was registered under the rape act,” he said.
However, the wife of one of the accused said they do not have maid and that her husband was not traveling to Naypyidaw on the day the rape was reported to have occurred.