Myanmar fire kills 13 Muslim students, adding to Buddhist-Muslim tensions

Police are blaming the blaze in Yangon on an electrical short, but some of Myanmar's Muslims are suspicious following religious violence around the country.

Khin Maung Win/AP
Members of Myanmar Red-Cross team and Muslims gather outside a mosque after a fire broke out Tuesday, in Yangon, Myanmar. A fire engulfed a mosque housing Muslim schoolchildren in Myanmar's largest city Tuesday, killing at least 13.

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Myanmar police say an electric fire is at fault for the blaze that killed 13 youth in an Islamic school in Yangon today. But on the heels of widespread religious and ethnic violence last month, some fear the deaths could add to the rising religious tensions in the Buddhist-majority country.

There have been no immediate reports of violence following the pre-dawn fire, but an estimated 200 people crowded around the school compound as security forces and riot police blocked the roads leading to the charred mosque. The fire broke out in the multi-ethnic neighborhood just before 3 a.m. local time, according to neighbors.

"The whole country is worried now for Yangon, and is wondering whether this was a crime," Ye Naung Thein, secretary of the Muslim organization Myanmar Mawlwy federation, told Agence France-Presse.

A teacher in the building told AFP he smelled petrol as he rushed to alert sleeping children of the blaze. But electrical problems are the frequent cause of fires in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and former capital, Reuters reports.

Last month, violence between Buddhists and Muslims erupted in the center of the country and quickly spread to 15 towns and villages before the government ordered a crackdown. The Associated Press reports that dozens of people were killed and more than 12,000 were displaced by the unrest in the central city of Meikhtila.

The violence, which has largely targeted Muslims, has since spread to several other towns where extremist Buddhist mobs have torched or ransacked mosques and Muslim-owned property.

The New York Times described the events in Meikhtila last week, painting a jarring picture of religious violence. It included accounts of complacent security officials, “saffron-robed monks with sticks and knives – hunting down Muslims and torching entire blocks, including at least five mosques, in Muslim neighborhoods,” and local Muslims stabbing to death a monk traveling between villages. The violence was spurred on by a petty argument between a Muslim jeweler and a Buddhist customer over a gold clip, the Times reports.

It took the government three days to declare a state of emergency and send in the army. That did stop the violence in Meiktila, but since then attacks against mosques and Muslims’ property have continued to spread across the country.

More than a week after the violence started, just this Thursday, President Thein Sein explained that government forces had been ordered not to intervene because he did not want to “risk any possible endangerment of our ongoing democratic transition and reform efforts.”

The Christian Science Monitor reported that last month’s violence “calls into question the stability of Myanmar’s nascent transition to democracy” after a semi-civilian government ended nearly 50 years of military rule in 2010.

Many international observers are concerned by the country's apparent lack of progress on improving minority rights.

"Governments are meant to guarantee rights, ensure that people are treated equally before the law, that nondiscrimination is the rule of the land, and that minorities have their rights protected," Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told The Monitor. "After seeing this [violence in Meikhtila], would anyone be confident in saying that the government is doing a good job?"

Eric Randolph, a security specialist, noted in Foreign Affairs early last month that governments around the globe may have reason to turn a blind eye to the ongoing ethnic violence.

Governments worldwide have strategic reasons to ignore the ongoing violence in Myanmar. China is concerned about conflict on its border but has about $14 billion of investments tied up in the country, including new oil and gas pipelines that are due to start operation in May. The United States’ primary goal, meanwhile, has been to ensure that Myanmar does not nuclearize, a pressing worry after reports emerged in 2010 that the country was trading technology with North Korea. The removal of sanctions and increased diplomatic exchanges are also factors in Obama’s pivot to Asia, while other countries are focused on the lucrative new marketplace that has suddenly appeared.

In its rush to capitalize on Myanmar’s tentative opening, the international community has given up much of its leverage over [President] Sein. It ought to remember that he is not vulnerable to a coup by hard-liners – he is the handpicked successor of Than Shwe, fulfilling a plan that was many years in the making – and that his government is desperate for foreign investment. Now is the time to press for clearer commitments to reconciliation and democracy, not for handing out peace awards. 

Some witnesses in Yangon said the doors at the mosque in today’s incident may have been locked and windows barred for security purposes after the string of anti-Muslim attacks last month – though that violence largely avoided Yangon.

"These children were about 13 or 14 years old. They died because they couldn't jump out of the windows, which were closed by iron bars," Ye Naung Thein, a bystander, told Reuters.

A police officer on the scene repeatedly said the fire was caused by an electrical short, not malefic intent. But each time he noted the “electrical short,” “angry Muslims shouted and began banging on vehicles with their fists,” reports AP.

The fire department in Yangon said it would set up an investigative team to determine the ultimate source of the fire, and that the team will include representatives from the electric company, police, and Muslim groups, Reuters reports.

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