Burma's Buddhists and Muslims Divided by Fire

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 3 April 2013

Within hours of the fatal fire that killed 13 children at a mosque in Rangoon early Tuesday morning, three explanations began circulating among people in the area about its possible cause. The first was that it was sparked by an electrical short; the second, that it was an act of arson; and the third, that it was set by radical Muslims to provoke outrage against Buddhists.

Setting aside the last theory, which was accepted by only a tiny handful of conspiratorially-minded Buddhists in the neighborhood, the other two explanations represent, on the one hand, the official version of events, and on the other, a view that betrays the deep-seated distrust that has grown between Burma’s Buddhist and Muslim communities.

When Irrawaddy reporters, including myself, arrived at the scene, we saw that the street leading to the mosque had been blocked and that riot police had been sent as precaution against possible unrest. There were even army trucks full of soldiers on the main road nearby, ready to move in if necessary.

Most of the bystanders were Muslims, looking stern and suspicious. Several journalists, including foreign ones, were interviewing the authorities and witnesses.

I asked Win Myint, a Muslim businessman, about what he thought caused the fire. Standing in front of the blue Islamic school on 48th Street, he pointed to a window and said that a bundle of fuel-soaked cloth could easily have been dropped through it by anyone with a bamboo pole.

As a former student of the school, Win Myint hurried to the scene when he heard the tragic news of the fire. He arrived shortly after dawn, and like many of the other Muslims gathered there, he entered the building soon after the fire was extinguished in search of evidence that it had been deliberately set.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Pulling out his smartphone, he showed me photos that he said strongly suggested foul play.

“See,” he said. “We found this pile of women’s clothing soaked with diesel near the window.” He added that he also found an iron bar—although it was not clear what role it might have played in the criminal act that he was strongly implying had taken place. It was also unclear that the bundle of cloth he had discovered were “women’s clothing”—something that would have been very incriminating, as all the students inside the school were boys.

When police officer Thet Lwin, who arrived at the scene before dawn, declared after a cursory investigation that the fire was triggered by an electrical short “and not due to any criminal activity,” the crowd was furious.

“Every time he mentioned the word ‘electrical short,’ angry Muslims shouted and began banging on vehicles with their fists,” according to a report by AP.

In stark contrast to the conviction held by many Muslims that the fire was no accident, many local Buddhists I spoke to said they didn’t believe it was possible that fire was caused by arson.

“It’s impossible. You should ask our private security personnel who take care of this street at night,” said members of a family who lived next to the mosque, speaking from behind a locked iron door.

Myint Aung, one of three Burmese security guards who were on duty that night, said he was the first person outside the mosque to notice the fire inside. “When I tried to wake up the people inside, there was no response,” he said. “I don’t know what they were doing. Perhaps trying to put out the fire themselves.”

“There were no strangers around here before then, and we were always alert. We didn’t see anything suspicious, as they have suggested,” he said, referring to rumors circulating among members of the local Muslim community.

Myint Aung, who has worked as a guard for 10 years, added that the school often gave him food for his supper.

Still, even some Buddhists found it difficult to believe that the fire was accidental. The fact that it occurred so soon after anti-Muslims in Meikhtila and parts of Pegu Division made many wonder whether the school fire was part of this recent wave of sectarian violence.

This is no doubt why the government was so quick to react, holding not one but two press conferences  in an effort to reassure the public that the fire was not related to the violence that began late last month.

The state-run broadcaster, MRTV, reported many details of the ongoing investigation, and carried interviews with Muslim leaders, eyewitnesses, electricians, fire department officials and police officers.

During the first press conference, Rangoon Division Chief Minister Myint Swe stated categorically that the fire was accidental, and accused school officials of blaming it on an act of malice to cover up their own neglect. Later the same day, he reiterated the official stance that the fire was caused by an electrical short, and said that one of the school’s teachers, Zeya Phyo, had admitted to starting rumors about its cause. A second teacher, he said, was still at large and being sought by police for questioning.

For Burma’s Muslims, however, this isn’t likely to be the end of the story. Muslim leaders have vowed to cooperate with the investigation, but even if the final report shows no evidence of wrongdoing, suspicions will continue to linger among the country’s Muslims that they have once again been targeted because of their religion.

Sadly, while most Buddhists have readily accepted the government’s version of what happened, Burmese Muslims will remain convinced that the 13 children who died on Tuesday were victims of a hate crime. Whichever side is right, one thing is abundantly clear: trust between Burma’s Buddhist majority and Muslim minority is at an all-time low, and could take a very long time to recover.