The Irrawaddy

Govt to Take Action Against Those Behind ‘Illegal’ Hpakant Mosque

A Buddhist nationalist mob gathers near the site of the mosque in Lone Khin Village Tract, Hpakant Township, Kachin State. (Photo: Zaw Min Htun / Facebook)

RANGOON — The Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs has announced that the mosque burned down by a mob in rural Hpakant Township in Kachin State had been built “illegally” on state-owned land, and action would be taken against those who constructed it.

The mosque, in Lebyin Village of Lone Khin Village Tract, was burned down by a Buddhist nationalist mob on July 1, after which five locals were arrested. The Irrawaddy phoned the Lon Khin Village Tract administrator and local police officials but they could not be reached.

The ministry’s statement on Thursday via state-owned media outlined the background of the Muslim place of worship, according to government investigations:

Ye Maung, a local Muslim, was permitted to construct a “temporary” home in 1985 on vacant land in the village held by Khin Maung, the chairman of the local People’s Council. After the latter’s death, the land defaulted back to the state.

In September 2014, Sonny Thein, another local Muslim, was being employed as a supervisor on the construction of the Uru Creek Bridge in the village. Sonny Thein erected a wall around a yard adjacent to the construction site to prevent it being used as a footpath. The walled-in area contained the small structure built earlier by Ye Maung, which Sonny Thein then expanded and adapted into a mosque.

When the bridge was opened on March 28 this year, local Buddhist residents and monks discovered that local Muslims were using the structure and its extensions as a place of worship. The structure was not legally authorized for religious purposes, according to the statement.

The Buddhist residents urged local authorities to take action. Hpakant Township authorities met with two trustees of the mosque on June 26-28 and said they would be charged according to the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law (2012), if they did not demolish all the “illegal” buildings.

The ministry’s statement said the Mosque trustees then oversaw the demolition of three extensions to the structure, but refused to have one part demolished because it had been funded by private donations. This prompted the authorities to charge the trustees—although legal proceedings could not get underway before the mob burned the structure down.

Tin Soe, the National League for Democracy representative for Hpakant Township in the Lower House of Parliament, told The Irrawaddy that he had attempted to mediate between the mosque trustees and the township authorities.

He and local authorities had had around seven meetings with the mosque trustees, who ultimately promised to demolish all the buildings—in contradiction to the ministry’s statement—before the “extreme nationalist” mob came.

“A very upsetting incident happened because of some extremists. Our efforts were ruined within a moment,” he said.

Tin Soe claimed that Ma Ba Tha members were among the mob, and that the Ma Ba Tha township chapter was “behind” the incident.

He told The Irrawaddy that four men and one woman—of Burman, Shan and Arakanese ethnicity—were being tried in court for the Lone Khin mosque burning, and were now acquiring a defense lawyer.

The lawmaker also recalled an earlier incident, which had received little publicity, in Tanai Township of Kachin State, where a mosque had also been destroyed by a local mob.

The Irrawaddy phoned the director of the Ministry of Culture of Religious Affairs, Aung San Win, on Thursday. He confirmed that the government would be taking action against both the people behind the construction of the “illegal” mosque in Lone Khin and the people involved in burning it down.

The director said the relevant government department in Kachin State is still investigating the case.

The ministry’s statement on Thursday explained that the government had also been taking action against the illegal construction of Buddhist religious structures.

It stated that, in early 2014, the government had demolished 24 “illegal” Buddhist monasteries in the Naypyidaw area. Additionally, legal proceedings against 173 monasteries in Rangoon Division and 86 in other states and divisions had been launched at the recommendation of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, the government-appointed council that oversees monastic discipline in Burma.

Ministry director Aung San Win confirmed these actions, stating that many of these “monasteries” had been not been authorized for religious observance. He declined to say how many monks had been imprisoned, although some individuals behind these monasteries had been given prison terms.

“When we found them guilty, we disrobed and jailed some of them,” he said. “Some are on the run.”

Although the ministry statement cited a total of 283 monasteries that had been previously been charged as “illegal,” it did not mention any figures for places of worship related to other religions, such as Christianity or Islam.

Aung San Win said a list of “illegal” religious buildings had been compiled across the country, although he would not disclose the number.