As many as 13 people were injured Sunday when police opened fire during a protest by 200 shopkeepers over what protesters said were over-inflated tax rates in western Burma’s Rakhine state, according to local officials.
Officials said that authorities fired to disperse the increasingly violent crowd, which had surrounded a police station in the port town of Sittwe to display their anger over attacks by alleged hired thugs on shopkeepers who refused to pay the higher taxes.
Aung Mya Kyaw, a member of parliament with the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) who is also a native of Sittwe, told RFA that the situation had been defused by early Monday morning.
"Things are back to normal now,” he said. “It happened between 9:00 p.m. [Sunday] and 5:00 a.m. today, and people have already left.
“Thirteen people were injured, but the injuries were minor. The police had to fire warning shots to disperse the crowd because it was too big.”
Aung Mya Kyaw did not provide details about how the 13 people had been injured or whether they were treated for their injuries.
Reuters news agency quoted witnesses as saying that 10 people had been shot and wounded when riot police tried to break up the protest, adding that protesters had thrown stones at police and that a 13-year-old novice monk was among those wounded.
Ba Shin, an RNDP parliamentarian in nearby Kyauk Phyu town, told RFA that the prime minister of Rakhine state, Hla Tin Maung, and his ministers had summoned Aye Maung, the chairman of the RNDP, to discuss the situation.
He said that the unrest in Rakhine, which is home to Burma’s largest concentration of Muslims, had not been ethnically motivated. The presence of the Muslim community in the state is believed to be resented by the Buddhist majority.
“We met this morning. There is no racial tension between the Muslims and the ethnic Rakhine, and we don't want any misunderstanding involved,” Ba Shin said.
“We discussed helping each other and doing our part to contain the situation.”
The RNDP has blamed the state government for “mismanagement” of the tax issue and had been seeking to meet with state officials to try to resolve the conflict.
Ba Shin said that residents had gathered in front of the police station after reading an online rumor about the disappearance of RNDP coordinator Aung Than Wai, who had been representing the Sittwe shop owners.
But even when Aung Than Wai came out of the police station and told the crowd that nothing had happened to him, the shop owners refused to leave and began to threaten the authorities.
“The mob used gasoline and started a fire on the street. They became violent,” Ba Shin said.
In an unrelated incident, Buddhist vigilantes attacked a bus and killed nine Muslims in Rakhine state Sunday in the worst example of communal violence in Burma since President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took power in March last year and set the country on a path toward reform.
The group believed the Muslims had been responsible for raping and killing a Buddhist woman a week ago and sought retribution when it set upon the bus on its route near Taunggoke town.
Just before Sunday's attack, leaflets bearing a photo of the woman and describing the rape were distributed in the area.
Reuters interviewed several residents who said the Muslims on the bus were not from the area and had visited Rakhine state as part of a pilgrimage. The sources, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested that those killed may not have been the perpetrators of the reported rape and murder.
Members of the 88 Generation Students Group, a movement formed by activists that were part of student-led protests against Burma’s former military regime in 1988, issued a statement Monday urging popular support for Burma’s reforms and calling on Burma’s citizens to avoid ethnic tensions.
“If security forces must be involved in local conflicts, it could lead to unwanted consequences,” 88 Generation leader Ko Ko Gyi said.
“That's why we are issuing this statement, to ask that we Burmese act like responsible citizens, help control recent conflicts, and reach a peaceful solution as often as possible.”
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.