Sixteen Arrested in Wake of Fresh Myanmar Violence

A Muslim man shows a damaged building at a cemetery after a riot on the outskirts of Mandalay, July 5, 2014.
Sixteen people have been arrested in connection with communal violence in Myanmar’s second biggest city Mandalay, police said Monday, as authorities sought to address accusations that they have done little to quell the Buddhist-Muslim unrest.

In the latest incident on Friday, Muslims accused police of standing by as a Buddhist mob armed with sticks and metal pipes set fire to a religious school and other buildings.

The 16 were arrested on “various charges” related to anti-Muslim riots that have left two dead and more than a dozen injured since they erupted last Tuesday following reports that two Muslim men had raped a Buddhist woman, senior Mandalay police officer Zaw Min Oo told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“We have arrested 16 persons of interest under various charges—they are in our custody,” he said, without providing further details about the suspects.

He said that “about 100 people” had also been charged for violating a curfew that went into effect following the latest outbreak of religious violence in largely-Buddhist Myanmar.

Some 280 have been killed and tens of thousands left homeless—mostly Muslims— since communal clashes erupted in the country in 2012 after decades of harsh military rule, according to rights groups.

The curfew, covering all six townships in Mandalay, was announced Thursday by the local government, which asked residents to remain indoors from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and prohibited gatherings of five people or more during the restricted hours.

“Those who have violated the curfew will be charged under Section 188,” Zaw Min Oo said, referring to a provision in the Myanmar Penal Code, which carries severe punishment for those “endangering public safety.”

He said that authorities “already have acts and articles to charge those who have caused problems” during the violence in Mandalay, though he did not specify what the charges included.

Local government had also deployed “about 1,000 members of the security forces,” including patrol guards, to protect area residents, he said.

Authorities are also searching for the two Muslim owners of a local teashop who were accused in online reports of having raped a Buddhist woman.

“They have been charged in Pyinmana township and the Pyinmana police are working on the case,” Zaw Min Oo said.

“If these two men are found in our area, we have to arrest them and charge them. We are collaborating with regional and state police in the search for them,” he said.

Nationalist Buddhist monk Wirathu, whose followers accuse Muslims of trying to unseat Buddhism as Myanmar’s official religion, had reposted links to reports of the rapes hours before the violence erupted last week.

Stoking anger

Mandalay district police chief Sein Tun said Monday that unconfirmed reports had fueled Buddhist anger over the last week to the point that authorities were unable to control crowds, including during a funeral ceremony on Friday for Tun Tun, a 36-year-old Buddhist victim of the riots.

The second victim of the recent violence was a Muslim man—reportedly a popular local bicycle shop owner—who was killed while on his way to attend early morning prayers.

“We had requested that the owners of the teashop … guard their store because we received a tip that people might come to destroy it, and while deploying our forces to protect them the crowd began to swell because of the online rumors,” he said.

“During the funeral of Tun Tun … the crowd also became huge because his funeral brochure said that he had been killed by cruel Muslims. That’s why the problem got out of hand, although it shouldn’t have been this way.”

Sein Tun said that he was unable to confirm reports that those responsible for the violence were not residents of the area “because there were hundreds of people,” but he vowed to investigate the situation and “take action” against anyone found to have fueled the riots.

A crowd of angry Buddhist mourners rioted Saturday following Tun Tun’s funeral, setting fire to an Islamic school in Mandalay, according to witnesses, and reports cited Muslim residents accusing authorities of standing by while the buildings were attacked.

“Some people at the funeral were angry after seeing pamphlets that said Muslims had killed the deceased man,” a member of Myanmar’s Free Funeral Association told RFA over the weekend, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Later a Muslim boy made a joke [about the funeral] and [the mourners] got mad and tried to set fire to the mosque in the Muslim cemetery, but they didn't succeed [in destroying it].”

A senior police officer was unable to confirm whether the mosque had been torched, but said that the “the incidents … you heard about were true.”

“What I heard on the [police] radio was that some people threw rocks, though there hasn't been any official report yet.”

Agence France-Presse quoted a Muslim donor to the school as saying that “more than 70 police were here but did nothing” to stop the mob armed with sticks, metal pipes and saws.

AFP said that no children were believed to be in the school at the time and nobody was thought to have been injured in the attack.

Call to quash rumors

On Monday, a group of religious leaders in Mandalay released a statement calling on authorities to facilitate the timely reporting of news to quell the spread of rumors that could stoke further communal violence.

The statement urged authorities to not only assist the media in providing accurate information, but to promote ethical reporting, vice chairman of the Religious Alliance Organization Thein Win Aung told RFA following two days of meetings between leaders from a variety of different religions.

“We, the central and Mandalay Religious Alliance members, met with the Mandalay region chief minister and discussed releasing this statement … because we believe that it will help to promote peace,” he said.

The eight-point statement also called on authorities to take action against people who “are controlling the problems from behind the scenes” and for the public to practice living together peacefully despite their differences and according to the values of democracy.

Reported by Tin Aung Khine and Yadanar Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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