Fire in Century-Old Rathedaung Township Mosque Under Investigation

By Moe Myint 26 April 2017

RANGOON – The 100-year-old Zay Di Pyin mosque in a rural area of northern Arakan State’s Rathedaung Township escaped extensive damage by a blaze on Tuesday night, a police official said.

Zay Di Pyin village, which is around 12 kilometers from Rathedaung town, is located in an area with a strong border police force presence. Around 80 homes in the 1,000-person community belong to Muslim families, said self-identifying Muslim Rohingya resident of Zay Di Pyin Al-Haj Zawhie Thra.

A fire broke out in the village’s mosque, which is located near the market and a Buddhist monastery, at around 10 p.m. on Tuesday during a prayer session. Residents phoned the village administrator to report the incident immediately, but the village head was away, leaving Muslim community members to get the blaze under control themselves—Buddhist Arakanese villagers near the mosque also helped in the efforts, Zawhie Thra said.

While rumors have circulated online about the cause of the fire, both Zawhie Thra and Buddhist Arakanese resident Ko Maung Soe Win described the situation as having been “misread” by members the community, as the fire’s source remains unknown.

“No one knows who did it. So, how can we assume who was behind this?” Zawhie Thra said.

What Caused the Fire?

According to Rathedaung police—who spoke to The Irrawaddy on the condition of anonymity—a report by the border guard police stated that the building itself did not suffer damage in the fire, but that 50,000 kyats worth of books and prayer mats were destroyed.

The border police reportedly also detained an imam from the mosque, and eight Muslim residents who were involved in putting out the fire, releasing them the following morning. Rathedaung police told The Irrawaddy that the border police suspected that the fire had started when the muezzin—the individual who calls Muslims to prayer—had left candles burning, which later fell and subsequently burned nearby objects.

“Temporarily, the border police have opened the case under Article 285, [which concerns] negligence involving fire. They will conduct a further investigation into the relevant persons,” said the Rathedaung official.

Article 285 of Burma’s penal code states that anyone who causes a potentially life threatening fire can be punished with a maximum of three years prison and a fine.

Yet local Muslim sources told The Irrawaddy that the Zay Pyi Din mosque has been using solar power for light, rather than candles, and questioned the conclusions in the border police report.

One villager added that copies of the Holy Qu’ran and other books are normally kept on shelves and tables, but that he had witnessed the burning texts piled on the prayer rugs, on the floor. The Irrawaddy could not independently verify this eyewitness statement.

Buddhist Arakanese resident of the village Ko Maung Soe Win said that the fire he saw was small and had not damaged the structure of the mosque, to his knowledge. He criticized other eyewitnesses for taking photos of the blaze rather than gathering water to put it out.

The border police allegedly confiscated the mobile phones of those who took photos inside of the mosque.

Zawhie Thra and Ko Maung Soe Win noted that Zay Di Pyin was spared the violence of riots that spread through several of the state’s townships in 2012. Yet, in November 2016, the mosque also caught fire, which reportedly started from within a wardrobe. Police have not identified a responsible party in the incident, and it remains a “puzzle,” said Zawhie Thra.

Local sources told The Irrawaddy that the situation in Zay Di Pyin has returned to that which it was before the fire broke out.

The Irrawaddy phoned the President’s Office on Wednesday, as well as Arakan State government officials on Tuesday, but was unable to reach any of these authorities for comment on the incident.