Myanmar police arrest nationalists after Muslim scuffle

Police in Myanmar have issued arrest warrants for seven Buddhist nationalists for inciting violence after a scuffle with local Muslims.

Image caption Police fired warning shots to disperse the crowds in the Yangon neighbourhood

Dozens had stormed into Mingalar Taung Nyunt township in Yangon looking for what they said were “illegal” Rohingya.

The ensuing confrontation left at least one person injured.

The violence comes as hard-liners from the Buddhist majority become increasingly strident in their opposition to the Muslim minority.

There are an estimated one million Muslims in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) who self-identify as Rohingya

Myanmar’s government sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – a common attitude among many Burmese. It denies them citizenship and places extensive restrictions on their lives.

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According to local media, early on Wednesday Buddhist monks led nationalists into the Muslim neighbourhood, claiming ethnic Muslim Rohingya were there “illegally”.

Police broke up the scuffles, firing warning shots to disperse the crowd. Two of those for whom arrest warrants have been issued are monks.

Incitement to commit violence carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.

In recent months, hard-liners had held protests in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), stopped Islamic religious ceremonies and most recently forced two schools to close temporarily over accusations they were illegally doubling up as mosques.
Taking on the monks? – Analysis by Jonah Fisher, BBC News, Yangon
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Image caption Buddhist monks have been a driving force in anti-Rohingya rhetoric in Myanmar

I’ve met one of the wanted monks before. U Thu Sitta was part of a small group of nationalist hard-liners we found demonstrating outside a Yangon port in February. A Malaysian ship was about to arrive bringing food aid for the beleaguered Rohingya.

As the monks and their supporters stood chanting anti-Rohingya slogans I asked him how protesting about giving food to needy people fitted in with his Buddhist beliefs.

U Thu Sitta answered but he didn’t like my questions much. As the interview progressed he complained several times about my posture, asking that I remove my hands from my hips, then my pockets.

Those gestures are considered offensive to monks and both times I apologised and stopped immediately.

But many of his fellow demonstrators filmed our discussion on their phones and that evening it went viral on social media.

The videos were viewed hundreds of thousands of times and the comments underneath were overwhelmingly hostile. Many called for me to be expelled from the country, my personal contact details were published and there were even a few death threats.

The posts were shared by several leading figures including prominent ministers from the old military-era government. As I discovered over the ensuing weeks, the interview became my most widely seen piece of “work” among Burmese audiences.

By calling for the arrest of U Thu Sitta and others the Burmese government of Aung San Suu Kyi is for the first time showing a willingness to take on the nationalist monks.

If my experience is anything to go by, the nationalists and the monks will have plenty of vocal support.

The predominantly Buddhist country has a long history of communal mistrust, which was allowed to simmer and was at times exploited, under decades of military rule.

In March, the United Nations human rights council said it would investigate alleged human rights abuses by Myanmar’s army against the Rohingya.

Some 70,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar into Bangladesh in the last six months, and the UN has gathered accounts of gang rapes and mass killings.