As Life Normalizes, Mandalay Residents Try to Make Sense of the Riots

By The Irrawaddy 7 July 2014

MANDALAY — Tensions remain high, but Mandalay is slowly returning to normal after several days of inter-communal violence.

Most shops in the city center, where rioting between Buddhists and Muslims first broke out, were reopening on Monday, though some Muslim-owned storefronts remained shuttered. Customers returned again to the city’s busiest market, Zegyo, while streets downtown were flooded with commuters in the afternoon.

But as the sun went down, shopping centers, restaurants and cinemas—normally crowded in the evening—were deserted, while shopkeepers closed their businesses quickly to rush home before the nighttime curfew.

When the clock strikes 9 pm, the city will go quiet. Police officers, on standby at barricades downtown, will watch to ensure that nobody wanders the streets until 5 am the next morning.

The government imposed the curfew last week on Thursday, after two people were killed in rioting. But since then, some people have refused to spend their nights indoors.

According to a divisional police office, about 200 people have already been arrested and detained for breaking curfew. Another 16 men have been charged with crimes ranging from arson to carrying illegal weapons, he said.

A committee comprising religious leaders and local residents was established on Sunday to maintain peace in the city. At a ceremony, several Buddhist monks and abbots spoke, including U Wirathu, a nationalist monk who leads an anti-Muslim campaign known as 969. The overall message of most speakers was the need for religious leaders to preach tolerance and kindness.

“Monk or layman, Buddhist or Muslim, we all need to unite and help each other,” said one of the monks, Galone Ni Sayardaw. “If someone tries to create unrest, you need to stop him, control him. Other religions also need to join hands, rather than viewing this as simply a problem between Buddhists and Muslims.

“Muslim or Buddhist, people also need to control themselves, behave themselves, to avoid chaos. You must not insult another person’s religion or race. If there’s a police case, let only those involved take care of it. We do not need to intervene and create a big problem.”

Fighting began last week on Tuesday following allegations that a Buddhist woman had been raped by her Muslim employers. In the following days, one Buddhist man and one Muslim man were killed, while at least 14 people were injured.

Mandalay was built by King Mindon in 1221 with several Buddhist pagodas and monasteries as well as churches, Hindu temples and mosques. Local residents say that since then, the city has seen smaller bouts of religious violence, especially under the former military regime, but never an outbreak of communal violence on such a big scale.

“There were some small religious clashes, but the monks and abbots could control it and the situation did not escalate. Now some monks have many different opinions about the other religion [Islam], and some people’s respect for the monks has declined,” Hsu Nhget, a famous writer in the city, told The Irrawaddy.

“On the other hand, with greater communication, people who want to create unrest use social media as a weapon to spread rumors, and the situation worsens,” he added.

He criticized authorities for failing to curb the recent violence.

“Just look at the funeral of Tun Tun,” he said, referring to a 36-year-old Buddhist man who was killed in the unrest. At the cemetery for the burial, “the crowd included young men who were shouting and holding rods and sticks, like a group of rebels entering the city. I wonder why the authorities allowed this? The police were understandably handling the situation cautiously because the crowd was large and there were not many security officials. But as a result, some angry men destroyed a Muslim section of the cemetery.”

The writer added, “No resident in Mandalay wants their city to experience unrest. Only a few people who wanted to destroy the city wanted to create the unrest.”

Local residents noted that the chaos followed rallies in the city by the country’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to campaign for a change to Article 436 of the Constitution, which allows the military to veto amendments.

“We think Mandalay became a victim in the reaction to stop the 436 campaigns. Now the campaign has been stopped visibly, especially in Mandalay,” said Thein Win Aung, vice chairman of the peace group formed on Sunday.

“If we do not understand these political tricks, if we do not control each other, if we allow ourselves to fall into the trap, then not only Mandalay, but the entire country, will be consumed in the flames of various chaos.”