Three temporary buildings in Myanmar’s Yangon region officially sanctioned for use by Muslims to pray during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan have been shuttered amid threats from Buddhist nationalists, according to sources, who questioned why authorities have failed to hold anyone accountable.
Local officials had granted permission to use the residential buildings in South Dagon township’s Wards 26, 106 and 64 as places of worship from May 6 to June 7, but mobs of more than 200 Buddhist nationalists led by activist Michael Kyaw Myint surrounded them on Tuesday and Wednesday, and demanded that local Islamic leaders sign pledges to end religious services.
Yan Aung, the caretaker at the building in Ward 106, said the Muslim community had ensured that permission was granted by the Yangon regional government before using the three spaces for prayer.
“These groups of people showed up in front of the building and began inspecting our facilities before demanding that we go to the township administration office,” Yan Aung told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“I went with two other senior community members to the office [on Wednesday night], where we were forced to sign a pledge to stop using the house as a prayer hall and remove the temporary infrastructure built for prayer services,” he said.
“But this was not a decree from the township administration office, and the police force wasn’t involved in the decision either. This was a one-sided demand by these nationalist activists.”
An RFA reporter who was present at the administration office on Wednesday evening said that authorities looked on helplessly as the mob obliged the Islamic leaders to sign the pledge.
The Irrawaddy online journal quoted Michael Kyaw Myint as saying that Islamic prayer at the buildings was unacceptable, and questioning who had the authority to grant permission to the Muslim community.
“They may accept this but we don’t,” he told the journal, adding that his group plans to “find more in this township and stop them.”
The Irrawaddy also cited Ward 106 administration officer Than Htike as saying the incident marked the first time a group that included Buddhist monks had pressured his office, and that the incident proves there is no rule of law.
Meanwhile, residents have questioned why local authorities have failed to hold anyone accountable for the mob action.
Commander Soe Win of the South Dagon township police station confirmed to RFA that there have been no arrests made, but stressed that the situation in the township is stable.
“We want the people to know there is nothing to be concerned about,” he said.
“The Myanmar police force is taking care of the security in the area.”
A local imam told RFA that police had given permission on Thursday to reopen the sites and pledged to provide protection.
San Tint, a Buddhist resident of Ward 106, expressed sorrow that the more than 1,000 Muslim members of his community were targeted during Ramadan.
“They had just started prayer services recently, and I felt horrible watching them be forced to shut down last night,” he said.
“I earn my living as a vendor and I have lived alongside these people for a long time. I watched many of these kids grow up. They helped us during funeral services for two of my family members … I can’t imagine how I would feel if the same thing happened at the place where I pray.”
Myat Thu, a young Buddhist resident of South Dagon, also extended condolences to the Muslims of the three wards.
“I would like to send my humble apologies to all of our Muslim friends in the neighborhood,” he said.
“I want all of them to know that not all [majority] Bamar people or Buddhists are like these people. The most important thing is to live in peace and harmony and respect each other’s religious beliefs.”
Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, who constitute a minority in Myanmar, have been growing in the country since a major outbreak of communal violence in 2012 during which 200 people were killed and tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state were displaced.
In April 2017, two madrassas, or Islamic schools, were closed in Yangon’s Thaketa township after Buddhist nationalists accused Muslim residents of illegally using them for prayer services.
Reported by Kyaw Zaw Win and Htet Arkar. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.