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The fire that broke out at an Islamic school on Rangoon’s 48th street in the early hours of 2 April inflamed the already tense relations between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma. As soon as the news broke that 13 boys were killed, polarised views from both communities turned the day into a war of words.
The mainstream Burmese media disseminated official claims that the fire was caused by an accidental failure of the school’s electric voltage transformer. Large media outlets ran with the city’s fire department chief account, which said the fire was an accident. This official comment was released almost immediately after the fire was extinguished, i.e. before any thorough investigation had been completed.
During a press conference later in the day, Rangoon division’s administration chief Myint Swe announced that the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction. He also went on say that two of the school’s administrators were responsible for the tragedy.
Muslim communities immediately began to claim that Buddhist thugs had targeted the school and rattled off accounts from Muslim eyewitnesses who said the school was deliberately set on fire. Several witnesses said they smelled fuel at the school and claimed to have found clothing soaked in gasoline at the scene. Some of the boys who escaped also said their clothes came into contact with some type of fuel as they fled from the burning building.
While the Muslim community began to see the 13 boys who died in the school as the victims of an atrocity, the majority Buddhists quickly sided with the official account of the fire. Before a proper investigation had been completed, both sides had already taken positions.
The media’s role
What’s bizarre is that the Burmese mainstream media seems to have little interest in investigating the incident and were more concerned with reporting the government’s official line. In a video interview with Eleven Media Group after the fire was extinguished, senior police officer Thet Lwin said “since this is an important matter, I humbly urge all media groups to present this incident to the public according to what we say”.
Throughout the day, media reports appeared one after another consistently citing government officials. The way headlines and stories were constructed implied that the government had the right answer. Instead of contesting government viewpoints, journalists took government explanation as the truth. As such, the Burmese media appeared to be a de facto propaganda department for the government.
This raises important questions. Have we all forgotten that the government has consistently lied to the people that there are no political prisoners in Burma? Have we all forgotten that the government has lied to the world that there is no forced labour or child soldiers in Burma? Do we now accept that the current government was put into power by fair elections in 2010? Have we all forgotten that police attacked monks with incendiary devices at the Latpadaung copper mine? Have we all forgotten that the government officials we are listening to have been more invested in cheating, corruption and oppression than protecting public interests for decades?
I am not saying that the fire was arson, but the media effectively became a state mouthpiece overnight. Neither am I calling on the media to simply criticise the government, but I am highlighting that the media has miserably failed to pursue objective truth by investigating the case and examining the explanations and accusations made by all sides.
It may be true that the fire was an accident and the irresponsible actions of the school administration may be to blame. Similarly, the fire could have been caused by a religiously motived assault on the school. The cause could have been something other than these two as well.
But for now, both sides have already made conclusions before a sophisticated investigation could be completed. In fact, conclusions were already made even before the investigation commission was formed on the afternoon of 2 April.
Given the uneven power relations between Muslims and Buddhists and the growing power of nationalist Burmese media on the one hand and the lack of Muslim media outlets on the other, the government’s conclusion has gained substantial backing. This only adds to the Muslims frustration with the situation and leads the community to suspect that the government is trying to hide the real cause by framing the school’s administrators.Before a proper investigation had been completed, both sides had already taken positions
The Muslim community’s concerns were also fortified by cursory comments made by the chief of the fire department. During a video interview, the chief said the fire was caused by the failure of the building’s electrical transformer. He also said, the light was still on when they arrived at the scene.
This fact has led many in Rangoon’s Muslim community to question how the transformer could have caused the blaze if the school’s light was still on during the fire. Muslim eyewitnesses also questioned how the transformer and associated wires and fuses were not burned. All of these observations require careful examination.
It’s also important to remember that the chief said that the transformer “possibly” caused the fire. However, the significance of the word “possibly” faded as people started stating that the electrical malfunction was the sole cause of the blaze.
Some Muslims who were at the scene that morning also pointed out that the official comments did not make any reference to the combustible fuel that witnesses said was found inside the building. Not surprisingly, many commentators, including the Chief of Rangoon division, spoke as if the fire department chief’s cursory remarks were unquestionably true.
Addressing community tension
It is understandable that the authorities want to prevent the possible outbreak of rioting in the country’s commercial capital by ensuring the public that the fire was not a religiously motivated attack.
But for the city’s Muslim population, the hasty actions taken by the authorities, who also placed the sole blame on the school administrators, has all the makings of a government set-up. In other words, many Muslims in Rangoon believe government officials are blaming the school, i.e. the Muslims themselves, so that they do not rise up.
Even if the government finds the fire was caused by an accident, many people in Burma’s Muslim community are likely to not accept the conclusion for several reasons. First, the investigation commission does not include any Muslim representatives. Second, Muslim communities believe the government will force the country’s Muslim organisations to accept the government’s findings. Islamic civil society groups will most likely have to accept the official line due to their lack of political power, strategic capacities, and inferior negotiating position.
A history of violence
In the last year, Burma’s Muslim community has been on the receiving end of several bouts of violence. Last year, 10 Muslim pilgrims were brutally massacred in Taunggout, which was followed by fighting in Arakan state where houses, mosques and religious schools were set on fire resulting in the deaths of hundreds and displacement of more than 120,000 people.
Last month in central Burma, homes and mosques were razed and people were burned alive, which included the massacre of 28 students and four teachers from an Islamic school in Meikhtila. The nationalist monk Wirathu’s recent comments about targeting Islamic schools and teachers have only further fueled the Muslim community’s distrust of the country’s Buddhist majority.
Similarly, Muslim communities will find it hard to trust the government itself due to state officials’ complicity in the Arakan, Meikhtila and Pegu riots. With regards to the rioting in Meikhtila, the New York Times quoted a police officer who said that he and fellow officers were “ordered to do nothing”. Photographs of security guards mingling with monks, rioters and Burmese reporters and local authorities who were actively involved in anti-Muslim campaigns provides enough evidence to substantiate the Islamic community’s claims that the government is behind the persecution of Burma’s Muslims.
Equally important is the matter that the government has not investigated any of the anti-Muslim violence that has been ongoing since 2011. These violence events include the destruction of a mosque in Hpakant, Kachin state in April 2011, anti-Muslim attacks in Kamma, Magwe division, in April 2011, and the sacking of religious schools by mobs in Rangoon’s Tharkata and Hlaing Thar Yar townships in February of this year.
Anti-Muslim campaigns undertaken by the 969 movement are getting out of hand, but the government has not taken any concerted action against the group’s leaders even as evidence continues to surface that the riots in Meikhtila and Pegu were fueled by 969 sermons.
In such a socio-political environment, Muslims in Burma believe they are being targeted and assume that the government has no interest in providing them with security or protecting their dignity.
Without taking serious steps to build trust with the country’s Muslim community by prosecuting individuals who have participated in the several instances of anti-Muslim violence, the government’s actions against the school administration, however legitimate, will only further politicise the otherwise benign immobilised mass whose level of tolerance now seems to be overheating.
-Sai Latt is a PhD Candidate at Simon Fraser University in Canada.