Myanmar Muslims fear 'they'll be killed if they go outside'

Terror swept Lashio as mobs on motorbikes attacked shops and mosque

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 May, 2013, 2:47am


It was a terrifying sight: hundreds of angry, armed men on motorbikes advancing up a dusty street with no one to stop them.

Shouting at the top of their lungs, clutching machetes and iron pipes and long bamboo poles, they thrust their fists repeatedly into the air.

The object of their rage: Myanmar's embattled minority Muslim community.

Residents gaping at the spectacle backed away as the Buddhist mob passed. Worried business owners turned away customers and retreated indoors. And three armed soldiers standing in green fatigues on a corner watched quietly, doing nothing despite an emergency government ordinance banning groups of more than five from gathering.

Within a few hours on Wednesday, at least one person was dead and four injured as this northeastern town of Myanmar became the latest to fall prey to the country's swelling tide of anti-Muslim unrest.

After a night of heavy rain, downtown Lashio was quiet yesterday morning. Soldiers blocked roads where Muslim shops were burned.

At one corner where the charred remains of a building still smouldered, Muslim residents sorted through rubble for anything salvageable. One woman who had fled a mob a day earlier was still in a state of shock.

"These things should not happen," said Aye Tin, a Muslim. "Most Muslims are staying off the streets. They're afraid they'll be attacked or killed if they go outside."

The violence that began on Tuesday in the northeastern city of Lashio is casting fresh doubt over whether President Thein Sein's government can or will act to contain the racial and religious intolerance plaguing a deeply fractured nation still struggling to emerge from half a century of military rule.

Muslims have been the main victims of the violence since it began in western Rakhine state last year, but so far most criminal trials have involved prosecutions of Muslims, not members of the Buddhist majority.

The rioting in Lashio started on Tuesday after reports that a Muslim man had splashed petrol on a Buddhist woman and set her on fire. The man was arrested. The woman was sent to hospital with burns on her chest, back and hands.

Mobs took revenge by burning down several Muslim shops and one of the city's main mosques, along with an Islamic orphanage that was so badly damaged that only two walls remained, resident Min Thein said.

When one group of thugs arrived at a Muslim-owned cinema housed in a sprawling villa, they hurled rocks over the gate, smashing windows. They then broke inside and ransacked the cinema.

Ma Wal, a 48-year-old Buddhist shopkeeper across the street, said she saw the crowd arrive. They had knives and stones, and came in two waves.

"I couldn't look," she said, recounting how she had shut the wooden doors of her shop. "We were terrified."

A couple hours later, the mobs were gone and two army trucks and a small contingent of soldiers guarded the villa.

"I don't know what to think about it," she said. "More casualties are … not good for anybody."

After nightfall, authorities could be heard issuing instructions on loudspeakers across the city, reminding residents a dusk-to-dawn curfew was in effect. The voice bellowing into the night also said: "You are prohibited from carrying sticks or swords or any kind of weapon."