Meikhtila — A Tinderbox Waiting for a Match

Black smoke rises from burning buildings as residents ride motorcycles in a street in riot-hit Meikhtila, March 21, 2013.

The communal violence that gripped central Burma's Meikhtila city this week has been a long time coming, and what provided the spark was a quarrel between a Buddhist couple and Muslim goldsmith over a gold hair pin, officials and community leaders said Thursday.

Muslims and Buddhists in the city have been holding grudges against each other since one of the country's biggest ethnic clashes erupted last year between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rakhines in western Burma's Rakhine state, a local lawmaker said.

"Both sides have had complaints," Win Htein, an MP for Meikhtila township from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), told RFA's Burmese Service.

"Those complaints exploded yesterday following a problem at a Muslim goldsmith's shop" at the city's main bazaar, he said.

The legislator felt Muslims in Meikhtila may have been harboring anger against Buddhists because they sympathized with the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, who rights groups say bore the brunt of the Rakhine violence in June and October last year which had left at least 180 dead and tens of thousands homeless.

"It seems those Muslims in Meikhtila had some feelings over the Rakhine problem. Some Muslims had distributed complaint letters over the last two months," Win Htein said.

On the other hand, some young Buddhists who heard the Muslims vent their anger also distributed letters responding to the complaints, raising tensions in the Buddhist-dominated city, where 30 percent of the 100,000 residents are Muslims.

Violence erupted in Meikhtila on Wednesday following a quarrel between the Muslim owner of a goldsmith shop and a Buddhist villager and his wife who had gone there to sell a gold hair pin, a police source said.

An argument broke out when the item was purportedly damaged as it was being authenticated by the goldsmith.

Tension grew as the two sides began to haggle over the price to be offered for the item and people in the shop beat the customers, causing an uproar in the bazaar, the source said.

When the villager was wounded, his sympathizers burned the goldsmith shop and ignited a mass riot, according to the source.

Adding fuel to fire was a report that a Buddhist monk had been killed by Muslims.

"The Buddhists couldn’t control their anger when they heard that," Win Htein said.      

Business rivalry

Some believe intense business rivalry between Muslims and Buddhists in the city had contributed to the violence.

"This problem erupted because business issues were mixed with religion," said Pinnyasiha, a prominent Burmese Buddhist monk popularly known as Shwe Nya Wa Sayadaw.

He said he and other monks had gone to the city to "calm down" the Buddhist community. They also helped rescue Muslims trapped in the clashes.

"It is concern for the country’s future if people don’t strive to separate business from social and religious issues," he said.

Min Ko Naing, a member of the 88 Generation democracy movement who was also in the city to help calm warring parties, suspected that the Meikhtila riots were ignited by groups wanting to resolve issues through violence.

These groups were from both communities, he said.

"I think this problem occurred because of people who wanted violence. It has nothing to do with religion," he said.

"People advocating violence come from both communities. Most local people don’t believe in such an  approach. They just want to protect themselves."

"What I strongly believe is we should not make these flames grow bigger. This is the most important thing. I want to repeat this again and again because we are at a very important juncture," Min Ko Naing said.

He said any violence should be prevented, as it could wreck democratic reforms being embraced by Burma.

"In other cities and towns, religious leaders must find ways to avoid problems such as what has happened in  Meikhtila. They could do this through discussions. We all should prevent religious or ethnic issues from flaring up."

Reported by RFA's Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.


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