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Mosque, Islamic school targeted for closure on Rangoon outskirts

A Muslim boy stands by his shop in front of a mosque in Rangoon on 14 November 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Local authorities have asked Muslim community leaders to shutter a mosque and madrasa that they say were opened without the proper permitting in Kyun Pone Lay village, Taikkyi, a township on the outskirts of Rangoon that was the site of deadly inter-religious violence in 2013.

Dozens of Muslim homes were burned and at least one person was killed across multiple villages surrounding the town of Oakkan in April 2013, when an incident in which a Muslim woman knocked an alms bowl from a Buddhist novice’s hands quickly spiralled into communal rioting.

“On 2 August, the Oakkan police station commander, Oakkan  municipal team and an interfaith group met with the leaders of the mosque, clergymen and teachers at the madrasa and asked them to sign an agreement,” said Myo Lwin Oo, the Oakkan administrator.

“In 2013, there was religious tension in Oakkan, where a one-storey mosque building and a prayer hall were burned down. The letter seeking permission to rebuild has been submitted to the state.”

However, “The madrasa and mosque were built before legal authorisation had been processed. We found that the mosque’s prayer hall was functioning and the students are having classes at the madrasa,” Myo Lwin Oo added.

“When we went there for an inspection, we found a prayer hall of 100-feet-by-50-feet. Also, we found a two-storey madrasa on a 2.5-acre plot of land,” said Ko Ko Naing, who chairs the Oakkan-based interfaith group involved in resolving the issue. “There are 18 teachers and 132 students in the religious school.”

Regarding the order that Muslim community leaders sign the agreement to close down the mosque and madrasa, Than Win, the headmaster of a madrasa in Kyun Pone Lay village, said:  “When the township authorities came here to inspect, we provided them with many documents, evidences and papers, which we submitted to the authorities [to get permission to rebuild]. We have already submitted the documents but the government has not issued a permission yet. We are teaching orphans and poor students here.”

The permitting dispute is reminiscent of a similar confrontation earlier this year between Muslim and Buddhist communities in Thaketa Township, also part of Rangoon Division.

Two Muslim schools there were forced closed as authorities said they were investigating the schools’ eligibility to hold prayer services. The closures were prompted by a mob of more than 100 monks and Buddhist supporters who arrived outside the schools on 28 April to protest the schools’ alleged lack of permission to teach religious studies and host Friday prayers.

Also this week, a coalition of 20 human rights and other campaign groups sent an open letter to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi calling on her “to ensure the rights of Burmese Muslims following a spat [sic] of anti-Muslim incidents inside the country.”

According to the groups, including London-based Burma Human Rights Network, “these events are part of a greater pattern of limiting non-Buddhists from freely practicing their religion in the country without significant obstacles. While the population of Burma has grown, the number of mosques in the country has decreased due to laws banning the building of new mosques and renovation of old mosques. Similarly, Muslims face significant restrictions on the use of schools for religious purposes.”

Tensions between Burma’s majority-Buddhist and minority-Muslim communities have flared periodically in recent years at various locales across the country, including major violence in 2012 in Arakan State and at Mandalay Division’s Meikhtila in March 2013, weeks before the Oakkan unrest that year.