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Rangoon chief minister vows to take on religious intolerance

Rangoon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein is seen through a video camera display during a press conference in the commercial capital on Friday. (Photo: DVB)

Rangoon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein pledged Friday to crack down on instigators of religious conflict, vowing that the divisional government would take action against those stoking tensions following recent altercations involving Buddhists and Muslims in the commercial capital.

During a press conference at his cabinet’s offices to belatedly report on its first year in office — the divisional government was sworn in in early April 2016 — Phyo Min Thein told reporters that his government would rely on strong enforcement of rules and regulations already on the books to prevent religious conflict.

“We will take action in accordance with the existing laws,” the chief minister said, adding, “We won’t form a team to monitor and prevent religious and racial conflicts.”

Two incidents in recent weeks have heightened concerns about relations between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma’s largest city, and raised questions about police’s ability, or willingness, to de-escalate inter-religious tensions as Buddhist nationalists have become increasingly assertive.

In Thaketa Township, a mob of more than 100 monks and nationalist laypersons gathered on 28 April to demand the closure of two Muslim schools that they claimed were holding prayer services and providing Islamic schooling without permission. Police were criticised by some after they acquiesced to the protesters’ demands, shuttering the schools as tensions between the two sides grew increasingly heated.

Phyo Min Thein on Friday said the country’s history was one characterised by friendship among its religiously and ethnically diverse communities, with the chief minister urging that this harmonious past be carried forward into present-day communal relations.

The reality on the ground, however, illustrates the challenges ahead.

Moe Zaw, a Muslim resident of Thaketa Township, noted that with the recent closures, Muslims who had previously held Friday prayers at the schools were without a venue to host the weekly Islamic rite.  He added that all Muslims were looking to avoid conflict and hoped that faith-based repression might someday be a thing of the past.

“The chief minister wants conflicts not to happen. We Muslim people really want that. We don’t want to suffer more,” he said.

Mo Zaw told DVB he had received a summons on Friday to face a charge under article 26 of the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law, after he led Friday prayers in the street last month in the wake of the schools’ closure. The provision relates to holding ceremonies or other public events without the required permission.

Police also took flak last month for their handling of an altercation in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, where a band of nationalists led locals into the largely Muslim township to confront a family accused of harbouring undocumented Rohingya. Although no illegal residents were found, at least one person was injured in a hostile exchange that led police to fire two warning shots into the air to disperse the crowd.