UPDATED at 2 P.M. EST on 2017-05-11
Myanmar police fired warning shots during a confrontation in the early hours of Wednesday in the commercial capital Yangon after Buddhist hardliners entered a Muslim neighborhood claiming that ethnic Rohingya Muslims were hiding “illegally” in the area, witnesses said.
Two people were injured during the scuffle, they said.
Monks from the Patriotic Myanmar Monks Union, also known at Ma Ba Tha, received information that some Rohingya were hiding in apartments on two floors of a building in Mingala Taungnyunt township, said Thuseitta, a monk from the Patriotic Young Monks Union.
Myanmar’s Buddhist majority views the Rohingya, a stateless group of 1.1 million who live mainly in the country’s western Rakhine state, as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and government policy has denied them citizenship and access to other basic rights for decades.
“Because of that information, we went to that apartment with police and immigration officers and checked,” Thuseitta said. “They found these ‘illegal’ people and long swords, but they didn’t detain them or take action against them.”
Police, however, determined that the people were living there legally.
While the monks were talking with the officers about the possibility that the Rohingya were hiding, some Muslims who live in the area arrived and beat and cut them and the police with wooden sticks and knives, and threw stones at them, Thuseitta said.
Both the monks and the police officers ran from the building and sought shelter in the police station, he said.
“Although people gave information about the Rohingya hiding in the area, and they found weapons at the location they checked, officers could not take any action against them,” he said.
Police then told the group of monks to return to their homes.
Former lawmaker Phyu Phyu Thin, who lives in Mingala Taungnyunt township, said two residents were injured during the confrontation among locals and monks and others who joined in the scuffle.
“One of them [the injured men] ran away out of fear, and the other was sent to a hospital,” she said. A few minutes after the problem, more security forces from a division unit came in, and these monks and strangers drove away at around 1:30 a.m.”
‘Like brothers and sisters’
A neighborhood witness who refused to give his name corroborated the story that officials and monks had come and searched an apartment in a building, but said they had found nothing.
After the monks left the apartment, they became involved in an altercation with two people from the neighborhood, which developed into a larger confrontation in which some outsiders became involved he said.
“They [the outsiders] came in three cars and brought weapons like wooden sticks and swords, and they acted thuggishly,” he said, adding that neighbors had heard rumors that outsiders would come into the area to stir up trouble.
Police eventually fired shots to break up the scuffle.
“We have Muslims and Buddhists living together in this neighborhood, and we are like brothers and sisters,” the resident said. “We are working together to safeguard our neighborhood, even now.”
“The people who came in and acted like this were strangers,” he said, adding that action should be taken against them.
Hla Htay, a regional lawmaker from the same neighborhood, also said that monks and officials who checked the apartment had found nothing.
“They found nothing, so officials couldn’t do anything,” he told RFA. “Because the officials didn’t do anything, the monks got into an argument with them and created tension with people from the neighborhood.”
“We haven’t had any problems like this before,” Hla Htay said. “We [Muslims and Buddhists] have been living together in this area peacefully for a long time with no problem, and I want that to be the same in the future.”
A local apartment dweller surnamed Win told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the Ma Ba Tha monks had been threatening her on Wednesday before about 20 people, including monks, police, and township administrative officers, showed up at her home at about 10:30 p.m.
“I have six family members, including an infant, who were falling asleep, and they pulled them from their beds,” she said. “They asked us to show our IDs and a list of family members, and the Ma Ba Tha monks asked police to take us to the police station.”
An administrative officer told the monks that the police did not need to take the woman and her family to the police station, but would do so later if necessary, Win said.
The monks argued with the officials but left the woman’s apartment, she said.
Harassment is nothing new
Phyu Phyu Thin indicated that the monks and police had overstepped their boundaries by getting involved in the matter.
“As far as I understand, the police need documents and a warrant to search a house, and no one can get involved in their search,” she said. “Homeowners have the right to ask them why they want to check a house.”
Phyu Phyu Thin also said that the harassment is nothing new.
“We have been adapting to different situations, but authorities are doing the same as they have in the past, and I feel that a group has interfered in the administrative sector,” she said.
“We have had the same problem [with Ma Ba Tha monks] in Bago city [in Bago region], [Yangon’s] Thaketa township, and now in Mingala Taungnyunt township, but authorities took no action against them,” she said.
“What they did is like destroying the peaceful situation and stability,” she said.
Phyu Phyu Thin said the Ma Ba Tha monks and others who break the law should be sued and charged.
In late April, a group of Buddhist ultranationalists pressured local officials to close two schools in Thaketa township attended by students aged five to 12, arguing that Muslims were using them to hold prayers in violation of an agreement signed by school leaders in October 2015.
Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have increased since last October when people said to be Rohingya militants carried out deadly attacks on border police posts in the northern part of Rakhine state, prompting a crackdown by security forces.
The United Nations estimated that 1,000 people were killed and about 90,000 Rohingya were displaced, most of whom fled to neighboring Bangladesh where they are living in refugee camps.
The U.N. has said that atrocities reported by the escapees could amount to crimes against humanity.
Reported by Kyaw Zaw Win, Aung Theinkha, Htet Arkar, Kyaw Min Tun and Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written by Roseanne Gerin.
Correction: A previous version of the article erroneously identified Thusietta as a monk from Ma Ba Tha’s Yangon chapter. He is from the Patriotic Young Monks Union.