Brawl Leads to Anti-Muslim Riot in Rangoon’s Outskirts

By Lawi Weng 5 April 2014

HLEGU, Rangoon Division — A personal fight has sparked an anti-Muslim riot in the town of Hlegu on the outskirts of Rangoon. A Muslim man reportedly stabbed a Buddhist with a pair of scissors during an argument on Friday afternoon, after which an angry Buddhist mob pelted Muslim-owned properties with stones.

A mob of about 300 people destroyed a Muslim home and later attacked a mosque at about 6 pm on Friday, according to Ee Mang, a security guard at the mosque. He said local Buddhists were shouting profanity and calling for the death of Muslims as they shattered windows, broke into the building and stole money from the donation box.

“They threw stones and some of them got inside the mosque. But the police prevented them from doing further damage,” he told The Irrawaddy on Saturday, adding that he was born in Hlegu and had never before experienced conflict with local Buddhists.

Hundreds of police officers were deployed to the town on Friday night, about 45 kilometers outside the major city of Rangoon, while local authorities declared Section 188 of the Penal Code, ordering the crowd to disperse and imposing a curfew to prevent further unrest.

The police and community leaders did not report any injuries of local residents during interviews with The Irrawaddy on Saturday.

A police officer standing guard near the mosque said two other officers had been wounded while attempting to stop the mob from entering the mosque. “They used slingshots to shoot at us,” he told The Irrawaddy. “One police was shot in the head and the other in the leg.”

The riot was sparked after a Muslim man allegedly stabbed a Buddhist man in the eye with scissors during a dispute in the public market at about 4:30 pm on Friday. Four Muslim men were reportedly involved in the fight and afterward went to hide in a home. When the police came for their arrest, the homeowner handed over only one of the men, angering a group of Buddhists, who subsequently destroyed the home, according to Myo Win, a Buddhist community leader.

“There would not have been violence if the homeowner handed over all four men,” he said, adding that he had worried the mob might target other Muslim properties in the town, even though the dispute was personal and not related to religion.

He added that there were no problems in the past between Buddhists and Muslims in the town, and that he believed the situation would be stable again soon.

Tensions following the riot have encouraged some Muslim families to seek shelter in Rangoon. Others are remaining indoors due to safety concerns. Muslim homes and shops were closed on Saturday, with business owners saying they feared they might be targeted.

Three Muslims have been detained and the police have arrested six Buddhists who are suspected of involvement in the mob attacks, according to Nyunt Hlaing, another community leader.

Buddhist-majority Burma has seen several outbreaks of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims over the past two years. The worst clashes, in the western state of Arakan, have left scores dead and over 140,000 people displaced.

Other riots have broken out in Shan State, Mandalay Division, Pegu Division, Rangoon Division, and Sagaing Division, often in communities where Muslims and Buddhists have lived peacefully for generations. In some cases, locals have said that outsiders came to instigate the unrest. Some observers have questioned whether the violence has been connected to a nationalist Buddhist movement known as 969 that encourages people to shun Muslim businesses.