RANGOON — A new report released on Monday said it found evidence to suggest that the 2014 outbreak of inter-communal violence in Mandalay was caused by a group of outside thugs who operated with tacit support from authorities.
Based on more than a dozen interviews with eye witnesses, Mandalay community leaders and family members of victims, the report by the Justice Trust paints a picture of the events in early July 2014 when clashes erupted between the city’s Buddhist residents and its Muslim minority.
At the time, a Buddhist man named Tun Tun was killed, as was a Muslim man named Soe Min Htwe. Tensions between the communities remained high for days and authorities responded with heavy police deployment. During a funeral for the Buddhist victim, the Muslim part of a cemetery on the outskirts of Mandalay was destroyed by angry mourners.
The Justice Trust, an international rights organization supporting local lawyers and activists, worked closely with the multi-faith alliance of the Mandalay Peace Committee to reconstruct the events through a six-month investigation. It concluded that the violence was orchestrated by elements from outside of Mandalay.
Several eye witnesses told the Justice Trust they noticed a group of around two dozen men on motorbikes enter Mandalay and make their way through the city while exhibiting rowdy behavior. “I saw a group of around 25 people, on motorbikes, yelling, singing the national anthem, throwing stones and damaging parked cars,” Mindin, Editor-in-Chief of the Mandalay Khit Journal, was quoted as telling investigators.
“By then there were 200 or so riot police within view down the street, they could not have been more than 10 meters away, doing nothing as these rioters went on a rampage,” he added. A youth community worker named Harry told investigators that he observed the group for a while and noticed they were trying to read road signs and maps to find their way.
“Almost everyone interviewed described the roving mob responsible for the death and destruction in Mandalay as comprised of men from outside Mandalay,” the report said. “Many witnesses reported that they actively tried to recruit monks and community members from Mandalay employing a variety of appeals and misinformation tactics.”
It remains unclear who killed the two victims, but the report suggests that both were killed in separate crimes by a group of several dozen men in the early hours of July 2.
A Mandalay District Court in October sentenced four men to 10 years’ imprisonment for being accomplices to the murder of the Muslim man. In December, it sentenced 11 Muslim men to 10 to 13 years in prison for aiding and abetting the killing of the Buddhist victim. The convicted men and their lawyers in both cases have insisted they were innocent.
No one has been charged with murder over the two deaths.
Mandalay Division Police Chief Col. Han Tun declined to comment when asked about the report’s findings, saying the violence occurred before he took the post. Mandalay Chief Minister Ye Myint said he was too busy to talk a reporter. Senior officials at the national police headquarters in Naypyidaw could not be reached. Attempts to contact Information Minister Ye Htut by email and phone on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
U Dama, a senior abbot at Moe Khaung, one of two Mandalay monasteries visited by the gang of supposed outsiders, told investigators that he turned them away when they tried to agitate and recruit his monks. “A crowd of about 30 men came to our monastery around 12:30 am on the first night of the riots,” he said. “I went down with 10-15 senior monks to meet with the mob. I noticed the men were quite drunk and out of control. I told them that they needed to leave as they were disrupting our peace.”
The report said the fact that Mandalay community leaders acted promptly to discourage residents from joining the outside agitators had helped prevent a larger outbreak of communal violence. It advised Burmese civil society groups to study the success of Mandalay community organizations in foiling attempts at inciting unrest.
Latent religious divisions have historically been present in Burmese society and attempts at fomenting inter-communal violence were long used during the former military regime to distract from calls for democratic reform, Justice Trust said. Now, the group alleged,the tactic is being used by former regime “hardliners” to control and slow down the pace of Burma’s democratic transition.
In 2012, inter-communal violence erupted between Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists in western Burma; 2013 saw eruptions of inter-communal unrest in more than a dozen towns in central Burma. The Mandalay violence is the most recent occurrence of such violence.
“This report shows what most Burmese have known for a long time—that religious hatred between Buddhists and Muslims is being stoked by hidden hands and manipulated as a pretext for maintaining their grip on power,” Thein Than Oo, a Mandalay lawyer who serves on Justice Trust’s steering committee, said in a press release. “We have seen this script many times before.”
Justice Trust stopped short of making specific accusations as to which actors with ties to the former regime would stand to benefit from organizing the unrest.
Senior Union Solidarity and Development Party lawmaker Aung Than, who has his power base in Mandalay Division’s Taung Tha Township, has been accused by some of involvement in the unrest and of supporting nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu’s 969 movement.
The Justice Trust said it identified a five-step pattern in attempts to orchestrate unrest: claims by nationalist groups on social media alleging that Muslim men raped Buddhist women, riots carried by outside violent gangs, failure of law enforcement to stem unrest in a timely manner, failure of the legal system to properly investigate perpetrators, and timing ofriots to divert attention away from calls for democratic reforms.
Justice Trust noted that the riots occurred days before opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was due to address a National League for Democracy rally in Mandalay calling for constitutional reform.
Since the violence occurred, Mandalay authorities have arrested at least two dozen men on accusations of participating in the violence and violating a curfew. Many of them were handed long prison terms in recent months.
The Justice Trust alleged that authorities were going after young men who had been incited by outsiders, while police failed to properly investigate who had tried to orchestrate the unrest.
“They acted on false, wrong information and they damaged the Muslim cemetery; they broke the law,” Thein Than Oo said of those detained following the violence. “But the authorities did not arrest the real perpetrators, those who incited the violence.”
Additional reporting from Mandalay by Zarni Mann.