During the day, the Mingalar Market in east-central Rangoon is a bustling maze of fruit vendors and food stalls. But at nightfall, the surrounding Muslim-majority neighborhood falls under an eerie spell.
The shops in Mingalar Taungnyunt township close early and most of the residents go to sleep. The main street entrances are protected by makeshift barricades, guarded by ordinary men prepared to defend their houses against the growing threat from Buddhist extremists.
Aung Moe Myint, a stout 30-year-old travel agent who is volunteering as a guard, tells DVB they have received numerous threats from unidentified groups who roam the streets at night in cars shouting abuse at the residents.
The acts of intimidation began after a wave of pogroms against Muslims kicked off in Meikhtila on 20 March. Aung Moe Myint and his neighbours say the fear of an attack keeps them awake at night. He complains bitterly that the authorities are not doing enough to protect them.
On a visit to the area earlier this week, only a minimal police force could be seen, although many locals regularly patrol the streets. They can often be found sitting in small groups sipping tea outside fragile barricades propped up with tables and barbed wire. According to Aung Moe Myint, they have organised shifts to guard the streets. But exhaustion is beginning to take its toll on the volunteers, who often work long hours into the night.
Since anti-Muslim violence erupted in Arakan state last year and later spread to the country’s heartland, many Muslims fear they have become the targets of a systematic campaign by radical Buddhists to expel them from the country.
“They kill people like they’re animals, including children. These people kill in cold blood. They are trained to do it,” says Aung Moe Myint in reference to the anti-Muslim pogroms in Meikhtila and Pegu.
All of the Muslim inhabitants of Mingalar Taungnyunt blame the notorious monk Wirathu and his “969” hate campaign, which aims to contain the supposed “Islamisation” of Burma. Wirathu has become infamous for his anti-Muslim speeches and “969” stickers, which have been plastered across shops and taxis all over Rangoon and calls on Buddhists to shun the Muslim community.
Nobody knows for sure who is behind this movement, but many assume that both Wirathu and “969” must be backed by powerful people, and may receive tacit, if not active, support from some strands of the government.
In any case, many residents in Mingalar Taungnyunt say they feel abandoned by the government and that they are being treated like second-class citizens on the basis of their faith. Some of them also feel forsaken by Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese pro-democracy movement. Aung Soe Myint, who claims to be a NLD supporter, says the Lady has changed over the past six months and no longer seems to care about the plight of Muslims in Burma.
[pullquote] Many residents in Mingalar Taungnyunt say they feel abandoned by the government [/pullquote]
Nevertheless, most Muslim residents insist they do not hold any animosity against Buddhists. Most of those interviewed by DVB stresses that relations with an overwhelming majority of their Buddhist neighbours and compatriots continues to be peaceful and friendly.
Mahmood, a young Rohingya from Sittwe who has lived in Rangoon for almost 20 years and is now volunteering as a guard, says Burmese Muslims only want to live peacefully and practice their religion, emphasising that there is no campaign to “Islamise” the country. Another volunteer adds they are not looking for a fight, but they are only defending themselves.
“We don’t know who these people are, but we are not afraid. If they attack us, we will fight back,” says Mahmood.
Muslim neighborhoods like Mingalar Taungnyunt are abuzz with rumors of imminent attacks by “Buddhist terrorists,” and some fear that Thingyan – the water festival to celebrate the Burmese New Year in mid-April – will provide troublemakers with the opportunity to launch fresh attacks.
Rumours continue to circulate over the recent fire at an Islamic school in downtown Rangoon, where 13 children died of suffocation. Very few seem to believe the official account of the tragedy, which government authorities have attributed to an electrical fault.
Mohammad, another young man manning one of the barricades, shows DVB a video with images of a burnt child, who he claims was shot in the Islamic school. While it is impossible to verify the authenticity of the video, Mohammad insists the fire was the result of an arson attack perpetrated by Buddhist terrorists.
Many are skeptical of how quickly the authorities drew their conclusions, especially without carrying out a proper investigation. Others are too afraid to even speak about what happened. A number of volunteer guards, working the streets of Botahtaung township on the night of the deadly fire, look visibly uncomfortable when pressed about the blaze, and say nothing.
One of the guards explains that they cannot speak because they are afraid of retribution from the authorities. A teacher from the school contacted also refuses to speak out of concerns for his security.