Burma sectarian violence

Smoke and flames billow from a burning building set ablaze during sectarian violence in Meikhtila, Mandalay division, in March 2013. Pic: AP.

Following several nights of violence between Muslim and Buddhist groups in the Burmese city of Mandalay, a curfew has been imposed in an attempt to bring order to the area. Many of those involved in the fighting had been armed with iron rods, sticks, and swords.

The majority Buddhist population in the country has increasingly clashed with the Muslim minority in the past few years. Around 200,000 Muslims live in Mandalay.

While the majority of the violence has been centered in Rakhine state in western Burma, where 200 people were killed and tens of thousands were displaced in 2012, there have been disruptions throughout the country. Many of the country’s Muslims continue to live in refugee camps.

Two people have been reported killed in this latest outbreak of violence, one Muslim and one Buddhist. Police report four people have been arrested in connection with these killings.

The fighting began Tuesday of this week when rumors were spread online by a blogger that a gang of Muslim men had raped a Buddhist woman. The message was spread further when Ashin Wirathu, one of Burma’s most controversial Buddhist monks, posted the story on his Facebook page.  Wirathu is the leader of the 969 Group that is adamantly against what it sees as Muslim expansion within the country. He has been jailed previously for inciting religious hatred.

Controversial Buddhist monk Wirathu helped inflame Buddhist and Muslim tension in Mandalay. Pic: AP.

In response to the news of the rape, Buddhist gangs attacked shops owned by Muslims as well as a mosque.

Social media has become a key way for extremists on both sides to spread rumors and inflame passions through hate speech. See here for an in-depth look at the pernicious effect of social media in Myanmar.

By Wednesday night, there were hundreds of riot police on the streets who were attempting to control the roving gangs of Buddhists who were attacking more shops, mosques, and cars. The gangs were only persuaded to leave after police fired rubber bullets into the crowds.

On Friday, there were rumors that the police had arrested a man and charged him with rape, however, this has not been confirmed.

The curfew continues.