Residents and legislators in central Myanmar’s Sagaing region expressed anger on Monday over a lack of action by authorities in containing Buddhist mobs who went on a rampage burning Muslim shops and houses at the weekend leaving hundreds homeless.
Hundreds of rioters armed with swords and sticks torched dozens of shops and houses in Htan Gone village in Sagaing's Kanbalu township beginning Saturday in the first of spreading anti-Muslim violence to hit the region.
Nearly 50 houses were burned down and 318 people were left homeless—many of them now staying with friends and relatives or at a Muslim Arabic school in the areas after the two-day violence triggered by reports that a Buddhist woman was sexually assaulted by a Muslim man.
Several people who moved to contain the violence were injured after being hit by slingshots, and police had to fire several rounds of warning shots to keep the mobs at bay, eventually detaining about a dozen suspected arsonists.
Htet Aung, a Buddhist resident of Htan Gone, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the violence spiraled out of control because authorities had reacted too slowly to contain it.
“This became bigger because of a slow reaction [by authorities],” he said, adding that the violence may have been the first in the village since it was established.
“The police had at least two hours to [bring in reinforcements] but they didn’t come in time. They only came into the village after houses were already set on fire,” he said.
Htet Aung said policemen who were there “were just standing around before that.”
Myint Naing, a member of parliament for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in Kanbalu, and his colleague Win Htein, an NLD lawmaker in Rakhine state’s Meikhtila—the site of a deadly Buddhist-Muslim clash earlier this year—both blamed police inaction for the scale of the Htan Gone violence.
There were indications as early as 5:00 p.m. on Saturday that riots would erupt, Myint Naing said, with mobs setting what was believed to be the first fire around three hours later.
By 10:00 p.m., he said, a number of houses had been torched and residents called on the police to intervene, but it was already too late.
“Several police came to the village, but it was not enough. The local people asked the police to bring in the military to stop the violence, but they didn’t do it,” he said.
“I can’t say why they didn’t ask for the military … I heard that the police thought they could control the violence by themselves, but that was a mistake.”
Win Htein said that the violence in Htan Gone was handled by authorities in much the same way as in his constituency Meikhtila, where a dispute between a Muslim goldsmith and his Buddhist customer led to a massive riot that left more than 40 dead and 12,000 displaced—most of them Muslims.
He said that several hours had passed between the dispute and the ensuing violence in Meikhtila—and that this was similar to what had happened in Htan Gone, where angry residents gathered outside the local police station demanding that authorities hand over a Muslim man suspected of sexually assaulting a Buddhist woman.
“The Meikhtila incident started at a goldsmith shop and the violence erupted two to three hours later. The incident in Kanbalu was the same as in Meikhtila. There were several silent hours between the start of the incident and the violence,” he said.
“When the violence began, police didn’t know what to do. The problem became bigger because the police had no experience [with communal riots] and didn’t decide on the correct way to control the violence.”
An official from the Organization to Protect Nationality and Religion named Tilawka called on the public to refrain from religious violence and for authorities to work more efficiently to prevent it.
“On behalf of our organization, I would like to say that nobody should employ violence,” he said, adding that people should be tolerant of one another’s religious beliefs.
“The relevant authorities need to collaborate with each other to prevent and control the violence.”
Ye Htut, a spokesman for Myanmar’s reformist President Thein Sein, defended the police action Monday.
He said only a handful of officers were on duty when the violence erupted and would not have stood a chance against the hundreds of Buddhists who descended on the local police station demanding that authorities hand over the Muslim man held on suspected sexual assault charges.
“Nine police from Kanbalu couldn’t stop the mob that came to attack the police station,” Ye Htut said.
“It was only because police from the village police station informed us that more police were deployed around 10:00 p.m. and again around 1:00 a.m., and only then could we control the mob,” he said, adding that authorities had a “faster response time” than in previous incidents around the country.
Ye Htut said that in a recent meeting with division and state level governments, Thein Sein had ordered local officials to take faster action against communal violence.
“That’s why you see more police were added and relevant authorities are able to get to affected areas faster than before,” he said.
But he added that a lack of equipment at the local level had hampered some efforts to improve police response time.
“Local police stations often lack enough vehicles to get to problem areas to take action,” he said.
“We need to improve these kinds of facilities. We have also planned to get more cars for police stations.”
The incident in Sagaing came after a spate of communal violence beginning with two deadly Buddhist-Muslim clashes in western Rakhine state last year, threatening the reform drive by the reformist Thein Sein.
The clashes in Rakhine in June and October left about 200 people dead and 140,000 displaced.
The violence then spread to central Myanmar's Meikhtila and Oakkan towns in March and April, respectively, and Lashio township in eastern Shan state in May.
Reported by Kyaw Thu and Sai Tun Aung Lwin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.