A Rakhine student activist in Burma’s largest city Rangoon and a member of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party are among dozens held by the authorities over the latest deadly sectarian violence, according to relatives of the detained.
Ye Min Oo, a member of the Rakhine Youth Association, was brought to trial in Rangoon’s West District Court on Thursday to face charges of inciting unrest, following Buddhist-Muslim clashes that erupted March 20 in Meikhtila city and quickly spread to several townships in Bago region.
“He is accused of inciting Buddhist monks to riot,” his brother Ye Min Aung told RFA’s Burmese Service, denying that Ye Min Oo had started up violence.
“He said he wasn’t involved in any riot and he didn’t want any violence,” he said.
Ye Min Oo was arrested in Rangoon on March 25 and relatives said he was missing until they were informed he was being held in the notorious Insein prison on April 1.
Fellow activist Pho Tharr told RFA he had been questioned by police about Ye Min Oo’s links to nationalist Buddhist monks in the violence, which is the country’s worst since clashes between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas in western Burma last year.
In Bago’s Zigon township, National League for Democracy member Aung Myat Thu was arrested on March 27, according to his brother.
“I was not allowed to meet with him. We will appeal to the court to seek his release on April 11,” brother Zin Htet Thu told RFA.
Nine other Zigon residents have been arrested and are held in a jail in Paungde, Zin Htet Thu said.
Police said in an online statement last week that 43 people were killed and 93 injured in the violence, which saw some 1,300 buildings destroyed, including 37 mosques.
The statement said 68 people have been detained over their role in the unrest, and police have not updated the figures since then.
“We haven’t had a completed list of detainees yet,” a police officer from the No. 2 police station in Meikhtila told RFA on Thursday.
“When we confirm the list of detainees, the Ministry of Home Affairs will release the list.”
A police officer in Meikhtila meanwhile told the Associated Press news agency that 42 people had been arrested, while state Advocate-General Ye Aung Myint said there were 26 detainees, half of them Muslim and half of them Buddhist. It was not immediately clear why the two accounts differed.
Tensions between the country’s Buddhists and Muslims have been running high since clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine state last year left at least 180 dead and tens of thousands displaced.
President Thein Sein, in a televised speech last week, blamed the violence on “religious extremists” and “political opportunists,” warning that they cannot escape prosecution.
The U.N.’s special envoy for human rights in Burma has raised concerns that some of the violence was committed by “well organized, ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs,” saying the government had not done enough to stem violence against Muslims.
Activists have expressed concern about anti-Muslim rhetoric spread by the “969 movement,” a campaign led by some Buddhist monks that calls on Buddhists to shun Muslim businesses and communities.
Pho Tharr, a member of the Rakhine Youth Network along with Ye Min Oo, said Wednesday that authorities had questioned him about possible links between Ye Min Oo and monk Wirathu, a leader of the 969 campaign.
Ye Min Oo had “no relationship” with 969 or monks who allegedly incited violence in the riots, and both he and the Rakhine Youth Association are opposed to violence, Pho Tharr said.
“He is someone who doesn’t want any violence. Our organization doesn’t want any violence as well. We all condemn violence."
Ye Min Oo will be brought before the court again on April 9, his brother said, adding that the activist has many supporters.
“There will be many people who stand on my brother’s side. Because of this, the situation could be tense,” he said, adding that the family had engaged lawyers Aung Thein and Kyaw Ho to represent him in court.
Ye Min Aung said it was “unfair” that relatives had not been informed of his brother’s arrest until April 1, after he had been missing for days.
Ye Min Oo is charged under Article 505 (b) of Burma’s Criminal Code, which prohibits spreading statements that cause alarm or induce others to commit an offense against the state or the public and carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison.
Commission to probe mosque fire
Following the clashes in central Burma, a fire at a mosque and religious school that left 13 Muslim children dead in Rangoon on Tuesday kindled new fears of violence.
State media reported on Wednesday that Burma launched a seven-member commission to investigate the fire, which local officials said was caused by an electrical problem and was “not due to any criminal activity.
The report follows calls from the U.S. and EU to investigate the cause of the blaze.
“Given the severity of this event, we encourage the government to work closely with members of the community to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the cause of the fire,” U.S. Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell said in a statement Tuesday.
EU High Representative Catherine Ashton urged Burma to “urgently conduct a thorough investigation that will leave no doubt as to the causes."
Reported by RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.