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Two arrested over nationalists’ search for Rohingya in Rangoon

Monks and nationalists held a press conference in downtown Rangoon on Thursday defending their actions in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township. (Photo: Kimberley Phillips/ DVB)

Police have arrested two Buddhist nationalists and are seeking five more, including two monks, allegedly involved in an altercation that turned violent Tuesday in Rangoon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township. Nationalist leader Ko Latt and his wife Ma Aung Aung Myint appeared before the Mingalar Taung Nyunt court on Friday, before being transferred to the notorious Insein Prison.

At Friday’s court appearance, the couple were charged under article 294 of the Penal Code, covering “obscene acts and songs.” The warrant seen by DVB, however, indicated that all seven individuals wanted in connection with the Mingalar Taung Nyunt incident would be charged with the more serious article 505(c), an incitement provision that carries with it a maximum sentence of two years in prison.

The arrests came in response to an altercation late on Tuesday evening in the Rangoon suburb northeast of downtown, where monks and laypersons led locals into the largely Muslim township to confront a family accused of harbouring undocumented Rohingya. Although police and immigration officials found no undocumented residents, one man was hospitalised after violence broke out. The largely stateless Rohingya, concentrated in western Arakan State, are subject to restrictions on movement both in the state and across wider Burma.

Speaking on Tuesday night, local Mingalar Taung Nyunt parliamentarian Hla Htay decried the unrest in his constituency and called for peace.

“I don’t wish to see such issues occurring in our township and it would be the best for everyone to be calm. This area, our township, does not have a history of racial or religious violence; it never happened. There has always been a peaceful co-existence between the communities here regardless of religion and I would like that to remain,” he said.

Mingalar Taung Nyunt police issued arrest warrants for the seven on Thursday evening, hours after monks and civilians involved in the disturbance held a fiery public event in downtown Rangoon, which they called a “Press Conference by Individuals Involved in the Mingalar Taung Nyunt Illegal Bengali Search, In Response to Those Spreading Misinformation and Propaganda.”

DVB made multiple attempts to contact Ko Latt by cellphone on Friday, but the device was power-off. Reporters questioned police officers at the Mingarlar Taung Nyunt police station, who declined to confirm or deny holding any monks or civilians in connection with the case. Officers at that station referred reporters to the Rangoon Division police department, which did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Also listed on the arrest warrant seen by DVB were Tin Lin Htike, also known as Lin Lin, Akyi Gaung, also known as Tin Htay Aung, and Myat Phone Mo in addition to monks Thuseitta and Pyinawuntha.

Ko Latt spoke to DVB hours before his arrest, on the sidelines of the nationalists’ press conference Thursday. He claimed he was responsible for tipping off monks and police that undocumented “Bengalis” were living in the Mingalar Taung Nyunt residence after driving five men to the home earlier this month. After his customers left some possessions in his taxi, he sought to return the items only to discover that they did not speak Burmese, he said.

Ko Latt, who identified himself as the vice chairman of the Association of Commemoration of 8888 People Force Future Myanmar, took to monitoring the property for several days and notified local monks and law enforcement. He has argued that undocumented migrants pose a safety risk to the wider community.

“The illegal residents have no documents — National Registration Card [or] household registration. Suppose the illegal residents rent an apartment, which is next door to yours; they would possibly kill or rape someone in your family. After committing the crimes, they will leave the place and go to another place or town. Because the offender is undocumented, the police officers will find it very hard to locate him or her,” Ko Latt said.

Monks present at Thursday’s press conference berated the media, including BBC Burmese, for what they described as inaccurate coverage of the Mingalar Taung Nyunt incident and for incorrectly identifying the nationalist monks as members of the controversial Ma Ba Tha faction.

But monk Eaindaw Batha strayed from the official line in response to a reporter who queried how the group was different from Ma Ba Tha.

“Before I answer the question, I would suggest that you think about the meaning of the word ‘Ma Ba Tha.’ The meaning of Ma Ba Tha is ‘protecting race and religion.’ Any individuals who protect race and religion are Ma Ba Tha. There are 135 ethnic groups in Burma and 85 percent of them are Buddhists.”

“Those Buddhist individuals who protect race and religion are all Ma Ba Tha,” Eaindaw Batha added.

Tuesday’s violence was the second flaring of inter-religious tensions that Rangoon has seen in as many weeks. Two Muslim madrasas were forced closed on 28 April after a mob of more than 100 monks and nationalists descended on the Thaketa Township schools, protesting what they said was the supposedly illegal holding of prayers and religious instruction.