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Buddhist-Muslim Mayhem Hits Myanmar’s No. 2 City

(Photo: Facebook)

By Thomas Fuller and Wai Moe
July 3, 2014

BANGKOK — The authorities in Myanmar on Thursday declared a nighttime curfew in Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city, after a resurgence of religious violence left two people dead and more than a dozen injured.

In terrifying scenes that have been repeated numerous times in Myanmar over the past two years, scores of Buddhist men on motorcycles converged on a Muslim neighborhood in Mandalay brandishing swords, yelling anti-Muslim slogans and ransacking Muslim shops, witnesses said.

The curfew order, issued by the Mandalay regional government, bans gatherings of more than five people from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

This was the first time in recent years that large-scale religious rioting struck a major city in Myanmar, raising fears of a wider conflict. Mandalay — like the country’s largest city, Yangon — is heavily multicultural, a patchwork of Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindu communities who have lived side by side since well before British colonial times.

The violence, which began on Tuesday night, was set off by reports that a Muslim man had raped a Buddhist woman. State media on Thursday identified a Muslim name as that of the suspected rapist.

The minister of security and border affairs in the region, Col. Aung Kyaw Moe, told reporters that in addition to the two deaths — of a Buddhist man and a Muslim man — one mosque had been burned and four others attacked with stones.

The Burmese news media identified the Buddhist victim as U Tun Tun, a driver for an association that offers free funerals. The Muslim was identified by a friend as U Soe Win, the owner of a bicycle repair shop. He was beaten to death while en route to a mosque for morning prayers, according to the friend, U Nay Oo.

Radical Buddhist groups have gained strength in Myanmar in recent years and have stoked violence against Muslims, who are a small minority in the majority-Buddhist country.

Muslim residents of the multiethnic neighborhood where the attacks took place said Buddhist mobs had destroyed cars and attacked Muslim shops that were only a five-minute walk from a large police station. The police fired rubber bullets in an attempt to quell the violence, but residents complained that they had come too late.

“I don’t understand why it took the police 50 minutes to arrive,” said U Nyi Nyi, a Muslim resident who owns a tea shop in the neighborhood. “I don’t understand why police did not arrest members of the mob even though they were just a few feet away from them.”

Mr. Nyi Nyi said that he had witnessed the violence and that the crowds had shouted, “We are Buddhist martyrs!” and “Muslims, be gone!”

Religious violence, which has left more than 250 people dead and close to 150,000 homeless since rioting broke out in western Myanmar in June 2012, has been a major setback for Myanmar’s transition from a military dictatorship to democracy.

The government of President Thein Sein says it is trying to contain the violence and has blamed shadowy forces. Activists say the government is not doing enough and point to a set of laws proposed earlier this year by Mr. Thein Sein that they say reinforce the religious polarization. The laws would, among other things, require Buddhist women to obtain permission before marrying outside their religion.

A posting on Facebook by Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk and spiritual leader of the radical Buddhist movement known as 969, appeared to have partly spurred the violence in Mandalay. He posted news of the reported rape and urged the government to crack down on what he called “jihadist Muslims.”

U Soe Lin, a Buddhist resident of Mandalay, said the attackers did not seem to know their way around the city.

“The mobs came after sunset, and they disappeared before dawn,” he said. “They didn’t know the layout of the city well. They were strangers.”

Thomas Fuller reported from Bangkok, and Wai Moe from Yangon, Myanmar.

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