RANGOON – Arakan State’s Security and Border Affairs Minister Col. Htein Lin has ordered the demolition of “illegally constructed” mosques, schools, houses and other buildings in Maungdaw Township in a meeting at the local administrative office on Sunday, according to a report in the Rakhine Gazette, a local paper.
The local immigration office stated that 12 mosques, 35 Arabic language teaching schools, 2,543 houses, 604 shops and 132 other buildings had been constructed without official permission from the local authorities, though it is not yet known how many of these are earmarked for demolition.
The Rakhine Gazette reported that Htein Lin summoned Muslim religious leaders and quarter administrators to attend the Sunday meeting, and informed the attendees that they would issue official instructions as soon as possible.
The Muslim representatives encouraged the border affairs minister to consider the wellbeing of the impoverished families living there.
Most of the more than 1 million Muslims in Arakan State, also known as Rakhine State, that identify as Rohingya—around a third of the state’s population—are denied any form of citizenship. Buddhist Arakanese insist that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and refer to them as “Bengali.”
Former lawyer U Kyaw Hla Aung told The Irrawaddy that Muslims from the Maungdaw Township have been living there for several decades but have not been allowed to construct or renovate buildings without a permit from local authorities. It is unclear whether the buildings listed to be demolished received a permit or not.
“They have lived here more than 20 years without permission to build or repair, how can they live? Should they live on ground?” U Kyaw Hla Aung said.
The Rakhine Gazette report quoted Htein Lin’s speech during the meeting: “We will take action against those who disobey instructions. How can we handle [illegal structures] if the number is increasing year by year? We can’t ignore those unlawful things.”
The Irrawaddy contacted Arakan State ministers, the Chief Minister’s spokesperson, and township administrators who attended Htein Lin’s meeting on Sunday, but no one was available for comment.
A regional legislator of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, U Htun Hla Sein, confirmed that each quarter has at least one mosque or place of worship in his constituency, but could not verify whether these religious buildings had been constructed with the authorities’ permission.
An Arakan National Party lawmaker representing Buthidaung Township, Htun Aung Thein, said that the actual number of such buildings is higher than government statistics, and that in his constituency, at least 400 “illegal” religious buildings have been built over several years.
The Irrawaddy talked to the spokesperson of the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs Aung San Win on Tuesday to clarify what kind of religious buildings are designated as being illegal and if any other religious buildings (including Christian and Buddhist buildings) fit this criteria. He declined to discuss the process and suggested talking to the state and divisional governments.
“Such matters are handled by regional governments. We handed authority to them in 2012,” he said.
In early August, the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs announced an investigation into what was described as an “illegal mosque” in Kachin State’s Hpakant Township that was burned down by a mob.
A ministry statement in a state run newspaper at the time said 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.
Although the ministry statement cited a total of 283 monasteries that had been previously been charged as being “illegal,” it did not mention any figures for places of worship related to other religions, such as Christianity or Islam.