Anti-Muslim Violence Finally Subsides in Central Burma

By Lawi Weng 1 April 2013

RANGOON—No major anti-Muslim attacks have been reported in central Burma since Friday and the unrest seems to have subsided after nine consecutive days of violence in Mandalay and Pegu Divisions, police and Muslim leaders said.

Haj. Aye Lwin, chief convener of the Islamic Center of Myanmar, said he had heard of no incidents in the 11 townships in Mandalay and Pegu Division that were affected after riots first erupted on March 20 in Meikhtila town.

“After President Thein Sein delivered his public speech the situation became quiet,” the Muslim leader said on Monday.

Thein Sein held a speech last Thursday in which he warned that the government would not hesitate to use force to quell the unrest, which he claimed was being orchestrated by “political opportunists and religious extremists.”

Although the speech was welcomed, the government’s lack of effective protection for Muslim minority communities during the riots has been criticized. A UN rights envoy alleged that some state actors were in fact complicit in the anti-Muslim violence as they failed to stop attacks happening “in front of their very eyes.”

Aye Lwin said hundreds of Muslims residents who had fled the smaller towns in Pegu Division had left. “Many Muslim residents from Okpho and Gyobingauk townships arrived in Rangoon and these people will go back when the situation becomes stable,” he said.

Tha Aye, another representative of the Islamic Center of Myanmar, said it had been quiet in the previously affected townships, although he heard of one minor incident in Pegu Division.

“A small group of people came out in Paung Tea Township at 10 pm and used some slingshots to scare Muslim residents,” he said.

A Muslim resident of Okpho town said by phone that the dusk-till-dawn curfew there had been relaxed and the main market had been reopened. But he added, “Not one shop owned by Muslim people is open, and there were some who have run away from the town.”

Security forces were deployed in Okpho’s town center and authorities were cleaning up parts of the damaged mosques so that Muslim residents could use the building.

“We do not have places to pray and they burned down everything belonging to us. We don’t even have enough clothes to wear,” said the Muslim man, who declined to be named for fear of his safety. “They are cleaning rubble from the mosques; they say we will have a space to pray again.”

However, authorities were leaving it unclear whether the Islamic community would receive support for rebuilding their shops and mosques, said the man, who added, “I did not see the government take any action against the rioters.”

Aye Lwin, of the Islamic Center of Myanmar, said authorities were also blocking Rangoon-based Muslim groups from delivering aid in Okpho and Gyobingauk townships. “If we want to donate to victims in the town, we have to hand the aid to the township authorities who will distribute it,” he said.

Aye Lwin said the government should prosecute those who were responsible for orchestrating the violence and help rebuild destroyed Muslim building, shops and mosques.

On the weekend the government attempted to reconcile Buddhists and the Muslim minority in Burma by organizing a meeting of dozens of leaders of the two religions at the Myanmar Peace Center in Rangoon.

U Wirathu, a fire-brand nationalist Buddhist monk who has been accused of stoking anti-Islamic sentiments, was also present.

“We [Muslim leaders] told him [U Wirathu] that if anything is unclear about Muslim culture, please let us know because we want to explain it,” Aye Lwin said, adding, “The Quran does not allow violence.”

According to government figures, a total of 43 people were killed and 93 were hospitalized in the riots, while 1,227 homes, 77 shops and 37 mosques were destroyed. The UN said almost 13,000 people, mostly Muslims, have been displaced in Meikhtila.

On Monday, a senior officer at Meikhtila Police Station said security forces maintained a heavy presence in the town, which is under a state of emergency.

“It is peaceful already and we detained 30 people, while more than 30 people have been charged and they face lawsuits at the court,” said the officer, who declined to be named as he was unauthorized to speak to the media.

Asked if any ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks were among the detained in Meikhtila, he said, “We don’t care about the suspects’ religion. But no monks have been detained.”

A local resident said that Meikthila’s market had been reopened in the past two days, although Muslim-owned shops remained closed.