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Muslims Fear for Their Lives as Flames Consume Burma Town Near Former Capital

Lawi Weng The Irrawaddy

RANGOON — Pages of a Koran lay torn and spread on the ground outside two mosques in the town of Okkan, on the outskirts of Rangoon. At the Cho Bali mosque, Korans were dumped in a small well outside.

Down the road, a Muslim-owned shop lay in ruins while a crowd of about 100 Buddhist onlookers surveyed the scene. No help came for the victims of Burma’s latest round of inter-communal violence. They were left to pick up the pieces of their trashed possessions.

The anti-Muslim violence erupted at 9am on Tuesday, locals say, when a Muslim woman hit a novice monk on her bicycle, spilling his food on the ground. The woman allegedly refused to apologize for the accident.

Shwe Nya War Sayadaw, a respected local monk, said he had asked the mobs to end the violence.

“We cannot let them do this because this will destroy democracy in our country,” he told The Irrawaddy. “I think people are watching this violence and they will have a  military coup when the situation is out of control.”

At 2pm on Tuesday, Tin Maung Than, a Muslim shop owner, watched as a Buddhist mob stole fruit juice from his family-owned store, shouting “let’s destroy the property of Muslims,” before ransacking his shop.

Some of the attackers were known to Tin Maung Than, local Buddhists from Okkan. But others, he says, were from elsewhere. As The Irrawaddy interviewed the shop owner, he pointed out three people in the street he said were involved in the attack.

Tin Maung Than’s wife, San Htay, is Buddhist. The family has lived in Okkan for more than 50 years. Their three children only know the town as home.

San Htay was the first to face down rioters, pleading with them to spare the shop. Her son was beaten and is missing, she says.

“I do not think this is religious violence,” Tin Maung Than said. “It is just violence against a minority here.”

San Htay showed The Irrawaddy photographs of her missing son, a monk in Okkan. The family says they have a deep respect of Buddhism and Buddhists.

“I respect Buddhists. I did not insult them, but still they have destroyed my shop,” she said.

Another ten minutes down the road, a dozen small huts lie in ashes.

A family hiding in the ruins of their former home told The Irrawaddy how a mob had attacked them.

“When they came to our hut, they shouted that they wanted to kill all Muslims,” said Moe Lay, a Muslim woman. “Then I took my children and ran to hide in a bush. We saw them burn down our hut.”

The rioters also released all of the family’s cattle.

“We do not know where we can find our cows,” Moe Lay said. “We are worried that the rioters will kill us if we go out to search for our cows.”

Moe Lay’s younger brother, Kyaw Naing, said the family felt powerless in the face of the attack.

“We could not do anything to fight them when they arrived, we just had to save out lives because they were too many.”

Hundreds of police have now been deployed in the area, but the victims said no police had come to help them.

“No police have offered to help us yet. What can we do if the rioters come back? We will just have to run away again,” Moe Lay added.

Tin Maung Than also had to run for his life.

“When they came to my shop, I first hid on the second floor,” he said. “Then, when I saw they were destroying everything, I went to the roof”

“I wailed from the rooftop for someone to help me. Eventually, my neighbors rescued me. They didn’t tell the mob about me, but I don’t know if I have good neighbors or not. I could be killed.”