RANGOON — Fear gripped Rangoon’s Muslim communities on Sunday night after reports and rumors began to emerge that groups of rioters were planning to attack their neighborhoods. Muslim residents reacted by closing shops and holding nighttime patrols, but eventually there were few incidents in Burma’s biggest city.
Over the weekend the violence directed at Islamic communities spread southward through Mandalay Division from Meikhtila Township, where 8,000 Muslims were displaced and dozens people were killed after violence erupted last Wednesday.
Some Islamic leaders and Burmese activists now allege that the rapidly spreading communal violence—which appears to pit Buddhists against Muslims—is in fact being incited by outside interests.
On Sunday night, reports and rumors that groups of anti-Muslim rioters were on their way to Muslim neighborhoods in central Rangoon first began to appear. Around midnight an unidentified group allegedly tried to set fire to buildings in Ma U Gone, a Muslim quarter in Tamwe Township, according to local resident Tha Aye.
“It was near midnight, around seven or eight people came in a van and tried to set buildings on fire. When people tried to catch them they ran away,” said Tha Aye, who is also chairman of the Union National Development Party, an Islamic political organization.
“They threw [Molotov cocktails] at a mosque but it was in vain,” he said, adding that the attackers revisited the area more than one hour later, but they were chased away by residents who carried knives and sticks.
News of the incident quickly reached other Islamic communities who formed vigilante groups to patrol the streets, according to Aye Lwin, a Muslim representative from Burma’s Interfaith Friendship Organization.
At around 3 am Monday morning Muslim crowds could be heard chanting ‘God is Great’ as they marched through central Rangoon’s Pabedan Township.
Residents of Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township, a predominantly Muslim market area, were also on alert after they received repeated anonymous phone calls on Sunday night, saying that the area would be the target of mobs.
Businesses in the area remained closed during a visit by a reporter on Monday. “We want the government to help stop these rumors and reassure the community’s safety,” local community leader Khin Hlaing said.
Some Muslim leaders believed that the violence directed at their communities was being orchestrated by outsiders. “In my opinion, a group of people is trying to instigate public unrest by targeting Muslim people,” Aye Lwin said.
Tha Aye alleged that elements in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party were involved in the supposed organization of the anti-Muslim riots, adding that they wanted to hinder President Thein Sein’s political and socio-economic reform agenda.
“I learned that there are still some hardliners in the ruling party who are against the reform. I was told they’ve hired some thugs on daily wages to fan the unrest,” he said. “Because the riots can halt the government’s reforms.”
Min Ko Naing, a prominent leader of the respected activist group 88 Generation Students, said residents in Meikhtila town had told him that they did not recognize any members of the marauding mobs that ransacked Muslim neighborhoods.
“They have intentionally formed groups and organized violence against the people,” he said, adding that the alleged instigators had moved south through Mandalay Division over the weekend. “Now they’ve come to Rangoon, spreading rumors that some religious buildings are being destroyed,” he said.
The Irrawaddy asked police in Meikhtila and other violence-hit townships this weekend whether outsiders had incited the communal violence, but officers said that they were still investigating what sparked the riots.
A senior officer at Meikhtila District Police Office said on Monday that the overall death toll of riots in Meikhtila Township had risen to 40, while 68 people were reportedly wounded as a result of the unrest.
He said 16 people were detained on suspicions that they had been involved in last week’s killings, adding, “According to our [police] reports about the riots, we need to arrest 100 more.” The officer, who declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media, said police were currently studying photos and video footage of the riots.
Calm returned to Meikhtila after a state of emergency was declared in Mandalay Division’s Meikhtila, Wundwin, Mahlaing and Thazi townships on Friday afternoon and military units moved in.
More than 8,000 Muslim residents fled the town last week and their properties and mosques were set on fire. They are now living in makeshift refugee camps with little emergency aid.
On the weekend, the violence spread south to Ywa Tan village, Yamethin Township, about 50 km from Meikhtila, and onwards to the towns of Tatkone and Lewei, not far from Burma’s capital Naypyidaw.
Dozens of Muslim-owned buildings and mosques were reportedly ransacked in the towns over the weekend, but there few details on how many people were killed or injured in the latest bout of communal violence.
Members of a leading Islamic organization in Burma told a reporter in Rangoon on Saturday that they believed that dozens of Muslim residents in these smaller Mandalay Division towns were killed or injured.
In recent days, UN officials and US government have expressed their concerns about the communal violence and have urged authorities to restore calm in central Burma.