US, EU Call for Investigation of Fatal Rangoon Fire

By The Irrawaddy 3 April 2013

RANGOON—The European Union and the United States have called on Burma’s government to thoroughly investigate the cause of a fire at an Islamic school in Rangoon that killed 13 children early on Tuesday morning.

In a statement released in Brussels, the European Union said EU High Representative Catherine Ashton was “deeply troubled” by reports of the fatal fire and called on authorities “to urgently conduct a thorough investigation that will leave no doubt as to the causes of this tragic accident.”

In a similar statement, US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell on Tuesday urged the government to “to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the cause of the fire.”

The fire broke out shortly after midnight on Tuesday at Saudikia Madrasa, an Islamic boarding school in east Rangoon’s Botahtaung Township.

Authorities blamed the incident on an overheated voltage regulator and said there had been no criminal activity.

However, some bystanders expressed suspicions that the fire was an act of arson, as it came on the heels of anti-Muslim riots last month in central Burma that left more than 40 people dead and hundreds of homes torched.

The Rangoon Division government hosted two press conferences on Tuesday, hoping to clarify the situation and prevent the spread of any religious tension or violence.

Lt-Col Myint Aye from the Rangoon Division police force told reporters that a Muslim teacher at the school agreed with authorities that the fire had been caused by an overheated voltage regulator in the building.

The teacher, Zayar Phyo, had earlier been accused of spreading rumors that the fire was caused by arson, but changed his stance after being detained by authorities.

“He admitted that the fire was caused by the voltage regulator after we showed him our evidence, including from interviews with three boys [who escaped from the blaze],” Myint Aye told reporters at the Rangoon regional Parliament building.

Myint Aye said another teacher, Khin Maung Aye, had fled from the scene after facing accusations of negligence in the fire.

“He ran away and won’t dare to come out and see us yet,” Myint Aye said.

The chief minister of Rangoon Division, Myint Swe, said the two teachers wanted to hide their alleged negligence by blaming the incident on arson.

“It is very natural for people to look for scapegoats when they’re responsible for a problem,” Myint Swe said. “They [the teachers] were afraid because they made mistakes, and that’s why they said other people set the school on fire.”

About 70 boys were living at the two-storey boarding school.

The police said the fire likely began downstairs at the voltage regulator, which was installed next to a ladder, and then spread upstairs.

Most of the children were sleeping on the first floor, but 13 boys who slept upstairs were unable to escape and died in the blaze.

Myint Aye said that after the fire started, children trying to put out the blaze may have accidentally fanned the flames by knocking over a fuel can inside the building.

He said police officers discovered a severely melted diesel container after the fire.

When police interviewed boys who escaped, he said, the boys admitted to spilling the diesel while attempting to put out the fire.

“I want you all to consider how impossible it would be for someone to come and set the mosque on fire, since there were guards at the building on duty at night,” he said.

He added that city authorities were determined to prevent any religious clashes such as those in the central Burma town of Meikhtila last month.

“We will not let Rangoon be damaged like Meikhtila, since this [Rangoon] is an important commercial city,” he said.

Rangoon Division authorities last week ordered shops to close early, at 9 pm, in a bid to prevent riots in central Burma’s Mandalay and Pegu divisions from spreading into Burma’s biggest city.

The city administration has tasked a seven-member team with investigating the fire. The inquiry is being led by the secretary of Rangoon’s electricity supply board, and the team must submit its findings by Friday.

“Rumor has it that the fire at the school was an act of arson, so we asked the government to investigate the reason behind the fire,” said Kyaw Khin, secretary of the All Burma Muslim Federation.

“They agreed to do so and released their findings at the press conference yesterday evening. I’m pleased with the results they found out.”

“We’re happy the government agreed to cooperate with us for the investigation,” he added. “We really want to know what started this fire.”

Kyaw Naing, a Muslim lawyer who has been following the case, called on authorities to bring in independent experts to investigate the police’s claims.

“The government says the fire was started by an electrical problem; let an expert investigate to determine whether that’s true,” he said. “The accounts I’m hearing in the streets are different than what the government is currently reporting.

The government needs to bring in victims as well who escaped from the fire. It is very important to listen to the voice of the victims.”