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Anti-Muslim Violence Tears Apart Communities Near Rangoon — Special Report

Lawi Weng & Daniel Pye The Irrawaddy

OKKAN TOWNSHIP—A Buddhist mob advanced on War Yon Daw village with swords, stones and machetes, trapping any Muslims who were unable to escape.

Moe Kyaw, 59, was caught by a mob on Tuesday afternoon in War Yon Daw, where Buddhists began attacks on Muslim communities on Tuesday, along with his family of five. The mob entered his home from two sides, chasing the family down the street and hacking at them with their blades before burning down the house.

“As we ran away they hit us with knives and machetes. All of my family has suffered,” he said. “My wife’s younger sister and my two daughters are missing. We haven’t had any information about where they are.”

Moe Kyaw, a proud patriarch, broke down in tears as he recounted how the mob sliced at his head with swords, cutting his hands as he raised them to protect himself.

“We know all of the attackers’ names. This is the first time that I’ve had a problem with my neighbors,” he said. “We respect Buddhists, even though we are Muslims.”

An investigation of the violence in Okkan Township, located about 100 km north of Burma’s biggest city Rangoon, based on interviews with more than 30 witnesses, suggests that the gangs of Buddhist villagers were well organized but comprised mostly local residents, roaming from village to village on foot and in trucks.

This week’s attacks near Burma’s former capital are part of ongoing pattern of attacks on the Muslim minority, who comprise some 4 percent of the population, which began in Arakan State mid-2012. Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims there left more than 100,000 people displaced—most of them Muslim—while anti-Muslim riots last month in Meikthila town, central Burma, left 43 people dead and more than 12,000 homeless.

The continued anti-Muslim violence threatens to derail President Thein Sein’s reform program, widely lauded by the international community since the former military regime handed power to his nominally civilian government in 2011.

The latest round of anti-Muslim violence began in Okkan on Tuesday, after an altercation between a novice Buddhist monk and a Muslim woman angered local Buddhists. It is the closest the communal violence has come to Rangoon since violence broke out in central Burma in March.

Ashin Pon Nya, 11, the novice monk involved in the incident that residents of Okkan say sparked the violence, described how a minor altercation led to tempers flaring.

“I went out from the monastery to collect food. The [Muslim] woman was walking toward me and didn’t move out of the way,” he said. “She knocked my alms bowl, which dropped to the ground and she accidently stepped on the cover and broke it. Some people nearby saw and told her to apologize and take care of me.”

The woman and the novice monk were detained by police following the incident, and both were released about two hours later after the woman apologized at 11 am on Tuesday.

But when they left the police station, another Muslim woman grabbed Ashin Pon Nya and shook him, accusing him of lying to the police. This prompted both Muslim women to be detained. A crowd gathered outside the police station, growing angry as the police stalled for time before telling them there would be an investigation.

The Muslim women remain in custody. Police denied journalists’ requests to interview them.

At about 3 pm on Tuesday, gangs of young Buddhist men gathered in Okkan and began to attack Muslim-owned properties. They burned down several buildings, sparing those close to Buddhist-owned properties from the flames. A mosque was attacked and Korans thrown into a well in the courtyard outside.

“I respect the Buddhists and even my son has become a monk,” said Tin Maung Than, a Muslim shop owner whose clothing store was attacked by a mob on Tuesday. “I do my best in life to get along with the communities here. But they have taken this opportunity to make life bad for my family.

“I don’t think this is religious violence. It’s just violence. Muslim people do not have enough protection here,” he continued. “Our Muslim people feel very vulnerable and weak.”

The violence continued in Okkan on Wednesday night, with at least one more Muslim village razed by what appeared to be a well-organized mob, complete with scouts and checkpoints on the tracks leading to surrounding villages.

Several shops were shuttered on Wednesday and the police closed the market on Thursday, fearing more violence.

Witnesses and police officers, both Muslim and Buddhist, interviewed by The Irrawaddy suggested that some of the violence was carried out by mobs that traveled in trucks. But some Muslim villages outside Okkan were attacked by Buddhists from neighboring villages, people who only weeks ago were sitting together at the same table for meals and religious festivals.

“We didn’t have any problems here in the past. We even had had a big celebration here for the recent Islamic festival,” said Aye Poe, the head of Joe Jar, a Buddhist village about 500 meters from Yadanar Kong, a village for Muslim migrant workers from Pegu Division. “The people who burned down Yadanar Kong were not from my village, they came in trucks from elsewhere,” he said.

Fifteen villagers sheltering from the sun under a small rattan thatch roof next to the ashes of Yadanar Kong agreed.

“They came in trucks, a large group of people,” Thein Tun said. “We didn’t know who they were, because we had to run away. There were about 50 people.”

Wine Tin, an elderly woman in Yadanar Kong is worried for the future, afraid of returning to Pegu because of the anti-Muslim violence that erupted there in March.

“I am thankful we have a tree to sleep under, but we don’t know what will happen in the future,” she said. “The rains will come soon. We have nothing left. Everything was destroyed in the fires. No-one has come yet to help us.”

Several kilometers north is the devastated Muslim village of Kyawe Pone Lay. On Tuesday evening, Buddhist men from three neighboring villages attacked on foot shortly after evening prayers. The residents all managed to escape, spending the night in fear for their lives in undergrowth by a river as they watched their village looted and consumed by flames.

Residents of Kyawe Pone Lay claim to know most of the attackers by name. When the Rangoon chief military commander visited the site on Wednesday, they say they gave him a list of the attackers.

The attackers “shouted and started throwing stones at the mosque,” said a resident of Kyawe Pone Lay, who wished to remain anonymous. “We wanted to fight back, but there were so many children with us we had to run away.

“They burned all the houses, including the mosque and the school … The people who attacked my neighbors used to come and eat with us at my house.”

Mar Phyar, 70, watched the devastation with horror. “I could not breathe when I saw my house burned down,” she said.

Unlike Yadanar Kong, the residents of Kyawe Pone Lay village have been granted some police guards.

San Myint, the police officer in charge of security there, believes the attackers were opportunists hiding behind the rhetoric of radical religious groups, a radical Buddhist movement that started in eastern Burma’s Mon State and advocates segregation and boycotting Muslim businesses.

“These people wanted to take this opportunity to destroy Muslim property,” he said, adding that a tough terrain prevented the police from reaching the area in time to stop the riots. “It was too late when we arrived here. We thought the conflict wouldn’t come to this village. The roads are so bad to travel in this area and you have to cross a river.”

At Okkan’s police station, Rangoon Division’s deputy police chief Thet Lwin said 20 people had so far been arrested, including the two Muslim women detained on Tuesday.

“Most of them are locals,” he said of the suspects. “Residents here have short fuses. They drink alcohol and get out of control. This is how it happened. Everyone who has been detained is from Okkan. There are people who say the government is involved, but this is meaningless.”

But when a senior monk in Okkan, Shwe Nya War Sayadaw, spoke out against the violence on Tuesday, he implicated elements of the government in the attacks.

“We need to work together to stop this violence,” he told gathered monks at a monastery in the town. “This is not only good for Okkan, but good for Myanmar. If this conflict spreads to the whole country based on religious issues…there will be a coup. “So, if this continues to happen, Myanmar is headed in a dark direction.

“Our people do not understand this is a political plot to instigate violence. There are people here who set the fires of the violence. If there are more fires, if will be difficult to stop it.”

Religious extremism took hold in Okkan about five months ago, according to residents, when nationalist Buddhist monks promoting the 969 movement began making speeches calling for Muslims to be expelled.

The violence has also affected Buddhists with family ties to Muslims.

Yin Yin San, the daughter-in-law of Moe Kyaw, the Muslim man attacked with swords in War Yon Daw, is a Buddhist and leading member of the local branch of the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Her husband lay beside her with deep gashes to his head and arms in a hospital bed as she told The Irrawaddy how the village had been emptied of Muslims.

“There are no Muslims left in the village. I saw the police just stand by and watch as the mob destroyed my house,” she said. “The police were afraid of the attackers.”

“I married a Muslim man five years ago. Nowadays, I am being attacked regularly for being married to a Muslim. They don’t want to see any Muslims walking on the streets.

“Five months ago some Buddhist monks began to make speeches about the 969 movement. After that the tensions began to rise. Many Buddhists told me to divorce my husband.

Win Cho, a woman attacked in Wang Kit village, said the violence had affected the entire community. “Now the problem is hurting everyone — old people, children, women,” she said. “Should children be killed because of this?”

Win Cho spoke with anger and despair. “Now in the community there are frequent threats to kill the Muslims, so will we have to suffer more like this? I will be happy if they kill all the Muslims, rather than beating us up and leaving us cripples. If you want to kill us, just do it.”

Yin Yin San says she has been discriminated against ever since the 969 movement arrived. “I wanted to tell truth, I love the truth. Now we are becoming people who feel it is better to die than to live,” she said. “As a leading member of the NLD in Okkan, I have spoken out against this discrimination.

“In the past, a lot of people respected me, but not anymore, not since the 969 talks. Now I am exiled to the gutter,” she added.

Shwe Nya War Sayadaw, the monk in Okkan, said: “There are people playing with politics who are lighting the fires, opportunists. In this community, Buddhists and Muslims can live together in peace. We should not expel the Muslims.”

“If people burn down mosques,” he said, “the cycle of hate will never end.”