Myanmar police arrested and charged two monks and five Buddhist nationalists on Thursday for their involvement in a confrontation in a Yangon neighborhood where they claimed that ethnic Rohingya Muslims were hiding “illegally.”
Two men were injured in the scuffle during which local police fired shots into the air to disperse a crowd that had gathered at the scene in Mingala Taungnyunt township in the east-central part of the city, witnesses told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Wednesday.
Police Col. Khin Maung Oo filed the charges against the seven men, and a township judge issued arrest warrants for them for incitement to commit violence under section 505(c) of the country’s Penal Code.
They face prison sentences of up to two years and a fine.
Among those charged was Tin Htut Zaw, a Mingala Taungnyunt township resident who had joined the monks as police searched an apartment in a building in the township where the monks believed “illegal” Rohingya were hiding.
“The monks came into the township with about 20 policemen and asked us to go there together with them,” he said. “Police officers and township administrators told us to come along with them.”
“They said if we went there with them, it would show that the police went in because people informed them to go to these houses to conduct searches, and we could be witnesses,” he said. “But they also said they could not take many people with them. Finally, the police agreed to take six people, including me.”
Monks from the Patriotic Myanmar Monks Union, also known at Ma Ba Tha, had received information that some Rohingya were hiding in a building in the township, and they alerted police and immigration officials, a monk named Thuseitta from the Patriotic Young Monks Union told RFA on Wednesday.
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.
After a search of the premises, police determined that the occupants were there legally and took no further action against them.
But upon leaving the building, the monks got in a scuffle with locals, while a group of outsiders joined in.
Some witnesses said that Muslims who live in the area had attacked the monks and police with wooden sticks and knives, while others indicated that a group of nationalist outsiders who brandished weapons were responsible for the melee.
Monks hold press conference
The confrontation and ensuing arrests prompted nationalist monks to hold a press conference earlier on Thursday at a Yangon hotel to defend their actions and call on officials to investigate the incident.
“We are not from Ma Ba Tha, as people are saying,” said Thuseitta from the Patriotic Young Monks Union.
He said that comments about the incident that former member of parliament Phyu Phyu Thin and regional lawmaker Hla Htay made to the media on Wednesday were unfairly biased.
Phyu Phyu Thin told RFA on Wednesday that the monks and police had overstepped their boundaries by getting involved in the matter, and that police should have obtained a warrant to search apartments in the building.
She also said that such harassment was nothing new and that Ma Ba Tha monks and others who broke the law by getting involved in the confrontation should be sued and charged.
Hla Htay, a regional lawmaker from the neighborhood in Mingala Taungnyunt township where the melee took place, told RFA on Wednesday that the monks got into an argument with locals and created tension in the area.
“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.”
Thuseitta also criticized comments about the incident by Mya Aye, the only Muslim leader of the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students Group—now known as the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society Group—who sympathized with the Muslims.
“Because he is a Muslim, he will say something to protect Muslims,” Thusietta said. “We can’t say he is wrong, because he is a Muslim who is protecting Muslims’ interest.”
“We also have the right to protect our nationality and nation,” he said.
Tensions between Buddhist nationalists and Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar have been on the rise 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.
In late April, a group of Buddhist ultranationalists pressured local officials to close two schools in Yangon’s Thaketa township, arguing that Muslims were using them to hold prayers in violation of an agreement signed by school leaders in October 2015.
Reported by Nay Rein Kyaw, Kyaw Zaw Win, Aung Theinkha and Kyaw Min Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.