YANGON—Two novices died and two others were injured in a fire at a monastery in southern Shan State on Wednesday night. Residents of Mong Pan Township’s Pan Pi village, where the blaze broke out after 11 p.m., accused Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) members of deliberately setting the fire, a claim the group immediately rejected.
The novices who died were aged 12 and 13. The two injured boys are 10 and 12.
A resident of Pan Pi told The Irrawaddy that the fire “Was not caused buy a candle. The monastery fire happened after a group of people arrived in the village. We thought they were ordinary villagers.”
RCSS spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Sai Oo denied the accusation, and speculated that the fire was caused by young novices mishandling candles on the night of the new moon, when there is no moonlight.
“It is not true and it was just [an accidental] fire. We heard they were playing with fire near a bottle of petrol, and thus the fire started,” he said.
The monastery in Pan Pi village is home to over 30 novices aged 10-14, and two monks, including the abbot.
Pan Pi has a population of more than 2,000, with over 400 households. The majority of residents are PaO, but the village is also home to ethnic Shan and Lahu.
Locals told The Irrawaddy that they needed emergency assistance, but no administrative officials or lawmakers had arrived to provide relief.
Troops from the RCSS/Shan State Army South and PaO Nationalities Liberation Organization/PaO Nationalities Liberation Army operate near the village and clashed as recently as Oct. 16.
The RCSS also said the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) had deployed troops and built outposts near the village recently.
The RCSS spokesman said the accusation that the RCSS was involved in the monastery fire was intended to create misunderstanding about the organization among the public, to create disunity and aggravate the conflict in the area. He said the organization had already explained that it had nothing to do with the fire via its “Tai Freedom” online media outlet.
Sai Oo added that, “Actually, fires can happen out of ignorance. It is true that we were engaged in fighting before. But we are Buddhists too, and we do not target monks, monasteries or the public. We never think of engaging in such bad actions and we are not allowed to do so. We even provide support for building new monasteries in villages, regardless of the residents’ different ethnic backgrounds, whether they are Shan or PaO.”
“This allegation against us is an attempt to inflame the problem. It will cause disunity among our community. The locals know that we are not [that sort of people].”
Both the RCSS and the PNLO are signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Article 9 of the NCA calls for the protection of civilians and prohibits destruction and causing damage to any public properties—including schools, hospitals, clinics and religious buildings—for any reason by any armed group. It also prohibits the deployment of troops and calls for signatories to promote public safety and development in ceasefire areas.