Hundreds of Muslim villagers left homeless after the latest wave of sectarian riots to hit central Burma this week are in urgent need of food and shelter, according to local sources.
A member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) said the opposition party is providing relief to displaced locals from Oakkan township in Rangoon division, 60 miles north of the former capital, which was struck by anti-Muslim riots on Tuesday.
“The refugees are being given assistance by various organisations. The Saffron Monks’ Network is donating them rice and food,” U Ni, a local NLD member told DVB, adding that most of those affected are Muslims.
Authorities say they are also providing humanitarian relief to affected communities. “There are 90 households of victims in total,” state media reported on Thursday. “Yangon [Rangoon] Region government provides the sufferers with rice and oil and the well-wishers [are] also taking drinking water and foodstuffs for them.”
One person was killed and ten injured, according to official sources, when a mob of Buddhists attacked local mosques and shops after news spread of a Muslim woman bumping into a novice monk and spilling his alms bowl.
“I was leaving the bean shop and was bumped into by a Kalama [a racial slur referring to a Muslim woman] and my alms bowl was knocked onto the ground,” 11-year-old Ashin Ponnya told DVB in an interview. “Then she stepped over it and tried to run away.”
According to the young monk, local Buddhists quickly rallied in his defence and called for the woman to apologise and replace the rice she had spilled from his alms bowl. The situation escalated after the woman insisted she had no money to buy new rice.
“You must find some money and buy him rice,” a local trishaw driver insisted, according to the monk. “So she borrowed 3,000 kyat from a lady at the beetle shop and went to buy some rice,” said Ashin Ponnya.
But locals accused her of throwing the borrowing money “rudely” at the saleswoman’s desk, before a local Abbot arrived and forced her to apologise.
“She said it was just a bumping incident as it was very crowded,” said the novice. “She was told to stay away from monks in the future or get arrested – even if she steps on a monk’s shadow,” which is prohibited under Buddhist traditions.
The Muslim woman has since been slapped with blasphemy charges under Burma’s draconian penal code and faces jail time. Eighteen other people have been arrested on suspicion of inciting the riots and are being questioned by the police.
Religious and community leaders in Oakkan said fresh rumours of unrest were spreading through the town and some residents were scared of returning home.
A local Muslim man recalled how a crowd of nearly 300 Buddhists had quickly descended on the town, wielding machetes, stones and sticks, ransacking and torching houses. He said that only a third of the attackers appeared to be locals.
“We decided not to defend our [homes]; just to back off and let them destroy [property] which they came to do and we all retreated to the bank of the creek,” he told DVB. “Then they started the burning.”
A partial state curfew has been issued in Oakkan and Taikkyi townships in Rangoon division since Tuesday’s violence, which destroyed hundreds of homes, shops, as well as four mosques and several religious schools.
Authorities claim that order has been restored in the region, amid reports that anti-Muslim unrest has flared again in Mandalay city. Three people were reportedly arrested on Thursday evening after a gang of men on motorbikes sped through the streets chanting nationalist and anti-Muslim slogans.
Tuesday’s violence is the first attack to hit central Burma since a wave of anti-Muslim riots swept through the country in March, leaving at least 43 people dead and 13,000 displaced. It follows two bouts of ethno-religious clashes between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya in western Burma last year, where hundreds died and over 140,000 people were left homeless.
Additional reporting provided by Su Su Hlaing and Hla Hla Win.