A local Burmese community has been left terrified after an angry mob of 300 Buddhists viciously attacked a Muslim school and several businesses in a suburb outside Rangoon earlier this week, according to local sources.
It follows news that hundreds of Buddhist nationalists launched a violent assault on a religious school in Thaketa township on Sunday, after it applied for permission to have its roof repaired. Reports suggest that the mob believed the building was being developed into a mosque.
On Monday, the mob returned to ransack businesses and homes, including hurling bricks and abuse at petrified locals. The violence has spread fear and confusion among local Muslims, who say they have never before had any problems with their Buddhist neighbours. Most of the people DVB interviewed did not believe that the vandals had come from the local community.
"Some [shady-looking] characters arrived in a truck – about three or four of them jumped out carrying sticks, blended into the crowd and began shouting stuff," a local witness told DVB. "Then a whistle blew from the truck and the three guys in the crowd yelled "get them!" and rallied the crowd [to attack]."
Many local families told DVB they are still too afraid to sleep in their homes and don't understand why their community was attacked. Over 20 families reportedly fled the area, even though riot police were quickly deployed on the ground.
"We were afraid so we left," explained a 35-year-old mother. "At night the children don't sleep, they don't study. When I leave them at school now they are still shaking with fear."
A spokesperson for the Islamic Religious Affairs Council Myanmar told DVB that the Muslim school had recently sought approval to renovate its roof, but because the structure had exceeded its permitted height by five feet, the municipal authority subsequently withdrew its authorisation. Rumours then quickly circulated that the school was being built into a mosque.
"I assume they misunderstood about the building – [Muslims] are required to wash themselves before reading the religious text so there are water taps [wash rooms] in Muslim schools," said Wunna Shwe. "And according to our religious teachings – we have to pray at the prayer time."
Police confirmed to DVB that four people were detained after the violence – none of which were identified as locals – but were released on Thursday. But Wunna Shwe insisted that both residents and outsiders were likely involved in the violence, which has the potential to trigger further religious tensions in the capital.
Reports suggest that local media, as well as prominent public personalities, played a role in stirring the hostilities. In an article published on 17 December, The Voice Weekly published accusations that a mosque was being developed and quoted inflammatory remarks by the controversial monk Wirathu, who has repeatedly spearheaded Islamophobic campaigns in Burma.
"It is true. [Muslims] are sneakily building mosques at night time," he told the The Voice Weekly. "There are plenty of those mosques in Burma containing cellars and tunnels underneath like military bases."
The article was later removed without explanation.
Over the past year, Burma has come under international scrutiny for its treatment of Muslim residents – notably the stateless Rohingya in western Burma, who clashed with local Buddhists in two bouts of violence last year. But this is the first major episode of religious violence to spill into the heart of the capital, which also hosts a large Muslim population.
"Burma has been a country where people of different religious beliefs live together in harmony and it is sad to see we have to be like this to each other when we are living in the age of openness and transparency; what everyone longed for," said Wunna Shwe.
-Aye Nai contributed reporting.