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Fear Grips Lashio After Burma’s Latest Anti-Muslim Riots

Lawi Weng The Irrawaddy

LASHIO, Shan State—The northeast Burma town of Lashio appeared like a ghost town on Thursday, two days after the latest religious clashes in Burma broke out between Buddhists and Muslims, with the streets empty as fearful residents stayed indoors and businesses closed their doors.

Mosques and Muslim-owned shops torched in the rioting earlier this week continued to smolder, despite the rain, while nearly every hotel, bank, restaurant and home remained shuttered. Authorities blocked the streets near sites that had been burned, with soldiers from the national army standing guard.

At least one person was killed and five people were injured in clashes this week between Buddhists and Muslims in Lashio, the latest town to be hit by anti-Muslim violence in Burma. The violence began on Tuesday after a Muslim man allegedly poured gasoline on a Buddhist woman to set her alight, with mobs forming to take revenge after the attack. Despite claims by authorities that the situation had stabilized, rioting continued the next day, with casualties confirmed by Wednesday evening.

On Thursday, few people could be seen roaming the streets, and those who did were trailed by calls from family members at the doors of their homes, urging them not to venture far.

Although the situation in the mountain town of around 150,000 people appeared to have stabilized, some residents said they worried another bout of violence could occur at any time. Youths riding motorbikes and clutching knives could also be seen in the area, raising alarm.

The Irrawaddy met three women who said they were walking home from the town’s main market after hearing that rioters would target the area. “I didn’t buy anything—I was afraid because there were rumors that people would come to attack Muslim shops there,” said one of the women.

Sai Kyaw Sein, head of the town’s Quarter Three, said he feared the rumors could get out of hand. “I want the media to help stop these rumors. I’m worried people won’t have enough food if they keep closing the shops like this for a long time because of the rumors,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Journalists have faced resistance and even violence in attempts to cover the clashes, with two journalists from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) injured yesterday and others threatened.

“We could not use our SkyNet car because we were afraid of them [rioters],” a senior reporter for the TV network SkyNet said. “We got a different car to drive around town.”

A member of the Myanmar Red Cross Society said rioters had also threatened members of her organization, which attempted to assist people as shops and mosques were torched. “They told us not to come out on the street,” she said. “We were afraid of them, we couldn’t do anything.”

Township authorities, the police and soldiers evacuated about 1,200 Muslims to a camp in the town as a means of protection. “We need to come and stay with the police here because we need security for our lives,” a Muslim man told The Irrawaddy. “They [rioters] tried to kill us.”

Aye Aye Win, the Buddhist woman who was allegedly set on fire, was receiving treatment at a public hospital in Lashio on Thursday and could not speak to reporters.

Her younger sister told The Irrawaddy that Aye Aye Win had come to Lashio after traveling to the Shan town of Muse for border trade. She said Aye Aye Win had gone to collect her money and met the Muslim man, who tried to attack her with a stick before pouring the gasoline on her body to set her on fire.

A Buddhist mob including monks reportedly went to the police station after Aye Aye Win was burned, demanding that the authorities hand her over and reacting angrily when their request was refused. Ye Htut, the spokesman for President Thein Sein, told the International Herald Tribune that 80 monks were among that mob.

The series of events is reminiscent of incidents in other towns in Burma that spread to mass anti-Muslim riots. In west Burma’s Arakan State, clashes broke out in June last year after a Buddhist woman was reportedly raped and murdered by Muslims. In the ensuing violence that month and in October, hundreds of people were killed and about 140,000 others, mostly Muslims, were displaced from their homes.

Some have speculated that a famous nationalist monk known as U Wirathu played a role in the Lashio violence, after holding Dharma talks in nearby Muse on May 20.

“We really wanted to know what he talked about there,” a local journalist in Lashio told The Irrawaddy. “We wonder whether what happened here was related to his talks.”

U Wirathu is known for promoting a nationalist Buddhist movement known as 969, which encourages Buddhists to shun Muslim businesses. He has been the subject of much media attention after speculation arose that he was involved in anti-Muslim riots in the central Burma town of Meikhtila, but he denies condoning or encouraging any violence.

In Lashio, a Buddhist woman said her shop, located in part of Jameh Mosque, was destroyed by hundreds of rioters on Tuesday night.

“A lot of people came carrying knives, sticks and gas canisters,” said Swe Swe Than, who sells Buddhist statues and tapes of Dharma talks at the shop in Quarter Three. “They stored the gas in cans that we use to kill cockroaches, and they sprayed the walls of my two showrooms, setting the building on fire.”

“Those who torched our shop, they were jealous because we had a good business here,” she added. “I didn’t have a problem with the Muslim people here.”

“I couldn’t stop the rioters, I needed to escape,” she said. “I’m a Buddhist—why did they burn my shop if this is related to a religious conflict? They were just terrorists.”

Her younger brother, Maung Maung Htwe, added: “It was sad, everything that happened here. We never thought it would happen like this. It will be something we remember forever.”