Myanmar authorities have failed to protect the country’s Muslim minority: BHRN

A Mosque in Yangon. Photo: Flickr / Michael Coghlan
A Mosque in Yangon. Photo: Flickr / Michael Coghlan
by Burma Human Rights Network

On April 28, two Islamic schools in the Thaketa Township, an eastern suburb of Yangon where approximately 50,000 Muslims live, were sealed off and closed by a group of Buddhist ultra-nationalists. The group was upset that the schools were being used to host prayers, which they claimed were in defiance of restrictions previously imposed by authorities against the schools.

The Buddhist-nationalist mob approached the schools on Friday, which is a day of prayer for Muslims. Witnesses told BHRN that the mob was as large as 150 ultra-nationalists, and The Irrawaddy reported a brawl breaking out at the scene. The Irrawaddy also said their reporter was threatened by the nationalists when he approached them for comment, then forced to leave the scene.

“Authorities have failed to protect the country’s minority Muslim population and have consistently complied with the demands of Buddhist-nationalist extremist groups,” said BHRN executive director Kyaw Win. “The actions of the extremist groups have clearly undermined the rule of law and are part of an increasing trend of groups targeting Muslims.”

“Due to the failure of the authorities to take action against Buddhist extremists, Muslims in Burma are vulnerable to vigilante attacks, civilian level persecution and denial of access to fundamental human rights. Worse still is that the failure by the authorities to take any action against the extremist groups will encourage them to commit further attacks,” Kyaw Win said.

The mob protested for hours on Anawmar 11 and 12 streets against the use of the schools for Friday prayers. Police reportedly stood by as the protests occurred and finally allowed the protesters to chain the entrances to the schools.

As of now there is no indication from authorities as to when the schools will be allowed to reopen. Taung Thar Lay Sayadaw from Meihkhtilar (a close ally of the notorious nationalist monk and hate-preacher Wirathu) and U Thu Sitta, from the Patriotic Myanmar Buddhist Monk Association, led the mob that surrounded the Islamic schools. Members of Buddhist extremist groups in these incidents were also from the Patriotic Blood Dhamma Network and members of local ultra-nationalist alliances. Other ultra-nationalist from areas surrounding Yangon, Mandalay, Meikhtilar, Maubin, and Pathein were said to have travelled to join the mob protest as well.

Prior to the event, supporters of ultra-nationalists groups and members of the Patriotic Blood Dhamma Network spread information on their Facebook pages, stating that the authorities have prohibited mass prayers in Islamic schools since October 2015. Under pressure from these groups, the authorities asked trustees from the eight Islamic schools in Thaketa Township not to allow mass prayers in the schools.

The trustees signed an agreement specifying this on October 20, 2015.

Tensions in Thaketa began to erupt when Buddhist ultra-nationalists disrupted Muslim prayers at an Islamic school in the township last month. Local Muslims were gathered in a prayer room on Anawmar 12 Road for Friday prayer (Jummah). The nationalists also visited the local administration office to ask the authorities to take action against the trustees of the Islamic school.

After this disruption, the Patriotic Blood Dhamma Network asked the authorities to close the Islamic school for breach of the agreement. The trustees of the school were summoned by the Thaketa Township General Administration Department on April 21 and told not to organize mass prayers in future, according to a trustee who attended the meeting.

The Islamic school on Anawmar 11 Street had previously received official permission to host prayers, according to documents received by BHRN. The Document, dated August 29, 1990, stated that authorities have granted permission to teach religious studies and to worship at the madrassah (Islamic school) in Thaketa Township, which was given in 1959 as a substitute for a madrassah and a mosque that authorities demolished in Lower Pazundaung Township.

This order, which references events in the year after Thaketa was established in 1958, contradicts the complaints of the ultra-Nationalists, who claim the worshippers are holding prayers in defiance of orders not to do so. Further, any order barring a religious group from participation in religious practice is plainly discriminatory on its face.

While Muslims are widely restricted in how and where they can practice their religion, there are no such restrictions on Buddhists in the country, who worship freely and are even allotted time for prayer in public schools.

Further evidence of these tensions was witnessed when the Patriotic Blood Dhamma Network forced Muslims to cancel an event to mark the birth of the Prophet of Islam last January. The event was supposed to be held at the New Light Hall in Thaketa. The group has also interfered in legal cases between Buddhists and members of other religions, where the group used racist language while pressuring the judges to favor Buddhists.

Muslims in Thaketa Township are now left without a place of worship while the Muslim holy month Ramadan is scheduled to begin at the end of May. The authorities have said they cannot take responsibility if any violence breaks out due to protests by the ultra-nationalist group.

As a striving democratic society, Burma must ensure equal treatment for all under the law.

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