The Irrawaddy

Meikhtila Govt Warns Against Religious Practice in Unauthorized Buildings

MANDALAY — Authorities in Mandalay Region’s Meikhtila Township have issued a sweeping warning against the use of unauthorized buildings for religious purposes, calling the move a community safety precaution.

The letter was signed by Meikhtila administrator U Ohn Htay on March 6 and has been shared with the area’s religious leaders.

It says that Meikhtila, as a transport hub in central Myanmar where Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus all live, was a sensitive location that could erupt into violence at any moment.

“To prevent instability, violence and threats to the lives of the people who live in Meikhtila, using unauthorized buildings for religious affairs must be avoided,” the letter states.

It adds that local authorities will take legal action against anyone who does not follow the order. And though the letter appears to be enforcing existing laws, it says the order would remain in effect for one year starting March 6.

The letter says unauthorized buildings are those not authorized for religious practices by authorities and which lack a proper trustee committee. It does not elaborate on why Meikhtila was at risk of violence and instability.

Meikhtila Township administrators could not be reached for comment.

A local Islamic leader, who asked that his name not be used for his safety, said the administration office also issued a verbal order in February against Arabic summer schools.

“Since then all of the Arabic schools were closed. We were sad when we got the warning because no reason was given,” he said.

“The authorities told us to seek permission to run the schools. The Arabic summer schools never needed permission in the past and we do not understand why they want to close the schools.”

The man said the summer schools remained open even when Meikhtila was hit by past bouts of communal violence and never had to inform authorities, let alone seek permission.

“The summer schools are just summer programs for the children to learn Arabic and the Quran. We submitted the letter to seek permission. However, we have received no word from the authorities yet,” he said.

He was worried of a repeat of the communal violence that rocked Meikhtila in March 2013, when at least 10 people were killed and hundreds of Muslims were displaced.

“Since we received these warnings we have been worried that there will be violence in our town. We have suffered enough and all of our lives were affected. We just want to stay in peace,” the man said.

In July 2016, a Muslim prayer hall in Kachin State was burned down by ultra-nationalists. The Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs later announced that the prayer hall was built illegally and said it would take legal action against those who built it.

The following April, a nationalist mob forced the closure of two Islamic schools in Yangon accused of operating as mosques without official permission.