x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Myanmar Buddhists take to the streets as sectarian violence spreads

Rioting sparked by reports that a Muslim man splashed petrol on a Buddhist woman and set her on fire.

Sectarian violence has spread to a new region of Myanmar, with hundreds of Buddhists on motorcycles armed with sticks patrolling the streets of  Lashio, northern Shan State.
Sectarian violence has spread to a new region of Myanmar, with hundreds of Buddhists on motorcycles armed with sticks patrolling the streets of Lashio, northern Shan State.

LASHIO, Myanmar // Hundreds of Buddhist men on motorcycles, screaming and waving iron rods and sticks, roamed the streets of a town in north-east Myanmar yesterday in a new wave of violence targeting Muslims. At least one person died and four others were injured, state television reported.

A mosque, a Muslim school and other buildings were burnt in the two days of rioting. Many Muslims stayed locked in their homes and shops remained shuttered in Lashio, near the border with China, the latest region to fall prey to the country's spreading religious violence.

The flare-up in Lashio reinforced doubts that president Thein Sein's government can or will act to contain the violence and crack down on racial and religious intolerance.

The rioting was sparked on Tuesday by reports that a Muslim man had splashed gasoline on a Buddhist woman and set her on fire. The man was arrested and the woman was hospitalised with burns.

Mobs took revenge by burning down the mosque and other buildings on Tuesday, but caused no reported casualties. Calm appeared to return as troops were deployed on the streets and authorities banned gatherings of more than five people and imposed an overnight curfew.

But yesterday, several hundred angry young men drove motorcycles through Lashio's downtown area. A Buddhist monk was seated on the back of one of the motorcycles, waving a stick.

On another street, a crowd threw rocks at buildings. Smoke billowed in another area, and local politician Sai Myint Maung said a cinema had been burnt and there were rumours that more troublemakers were gathered on the outskirts of the town.

Wary Muslims hid in their homes, fearing the kind of violence that claimed dozens of lives earlier this year in other parts of the country, and the large-scale attacks that killed hundreds in west Myanmar last year.

"I never expected that such racial violence would erupt in Lashio," said one Muslim resident, Ko Maung Gyi, who spoke by telephone from his locked home in Lashio's main Muslim neighbourhood. "Our small town is multi-ethnic and we have lived in peace for a long time."

The government appealed for calm.

"Damaging religious buildings and creating religious riots is inappropriate for the democratic society we are trying to create," said presidential spokesman Ye Htut on his Facebook page. He said "two religious buildings and some shops" in Lashio were burnt, without specifying whether they were Muslim or Buddhist.

"Any criminal act will be dealt with according to the law," he said.

State TV said a 48-year-old man had been arrested for throwing gasoline on a 24-year-old Buddhist woman and setting her on fire. It identified the man as an Indian Muslim but did not explain the reason for the attack.

The report did not mention whether any members of the Buddhist mob on Tuesday were arrested, an omission likely to fuel more questions over whether minority Muslims can find justice in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar.

Minority Muslims have been the main victims of the violence, but so far there have been no criminal trials of members of the Buddhist majority.

Myanmar's sectarian violence first flared in west Rakhine state last year, when hundreds of people died in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that drove about 140,000 others, mostly Muslims, from their homes. Most are still living in refugee camps.