Taungoo Violence (May 2001)
There was mounting tension between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Taungoo for weeks before it erupted into violence in the middle of May 2001. The destruction of the Buddhist images in Bamiyan seem to have been one of the main triggers. Buddhist monks demanded that the ancient Hantha Mosque in Taungoo be destroyed in retaliation for the destruction in Bamiyan, according to Muslim leaders.
Eyewitnesses blame the violence on a crowd of more than a thousand people, led by monks. The violence started when a group of Burmese Buddhists attacked shops and restaurants owned by Muslims in the central town area. The Muslim owners retaliated angrily, defending themselves and fighting back, and then the violence escalated. In the next two days, Muslim homes, shops, and mosques were damaged or burned. Many Muslims were beaten and required medical treatment. During the violence, many Muslims sought and were given sanctuary both in Christian and Buddhist religious places of worship. Medical treatment at the government hospital was denied or delayed for a number of victims, said a local resident, and private doctors provided care for them but at their own risk.
Nine Muslims reportedly died during the riots, including three children. In one incident, a family of four, including two young children, perished when their house was set on fire by angry crowds allegedly whipped up by Buddhist monks. The house was burned to the ground, allegedly after being ignored by fire-fighters who devoted all their efforts to saving a Buddhist home next door.11
More than sixty Muslim homes were destroyed and virtually all the Muslim-owned shops were looted and demolished, according to a local Muslim leader. Six mosques were destroyed, according to Muslim residents, including the famous 200-year-old Hantha Mosque. The mosque was initially defended by volunteer Muslim guards, but the local authorities prevailed on the committee to allow the town council to take responsibility for the mosque's safety. Muslim leaders emphasize that the Mosque was demolished during curfew hours and believe that local authorities were at least in part responsible for its destruction.
There are also credible reports that the violence against Muslims in Taungoo spread to nearby townships and villages, including Myo Hla and Kywe Pway. In Taungdwin Gyi several days after the violence in Taungoo, Muslim-owned cars, houses, shops, and properties were burned and destroyed, said a Muslim eyewitness. The conflict between Muslims and Buddhists also spread to Taunggyi in Shan state. There are also unconfirmed claims that several mosques in parts of Karen State to the south of Taungoo were destroyed in Buddhist-Muslim violence that followed the disturbances in Taungoo.
There are also reports of problems in Prome and Mandalay around May, but here Buddhist monks seem to have taken an active role in protecting the local mosques from destruction. The tension was so high in Mandalay that authorities were forced to close the Zay Cho market (in central Mandalay near the main railway station) for three days. A curfew was declared as soon as anti-Muslim clashes broke out in Pegu - a little more than eighty kilometers northeast of Rangoon. Curfews were imposed in many areas and towns in the second half of May because of the Muslim-Buddhist tension, according to a Rangoon-based diplomat, including in Pegu, Prome, Taungoo, and Taunggyi.
Many of the monks in Taungoo were carrying hand-phones, according to a highly credible eyewitness. Mobile phones are not readily available to the Burmese population -- they simply cannot afford them. This seems to suggest that they were not monks, and may have been military intelligence operatives masquerading as monks. In general, there was clearly a split among the monks in their attitude towards the violence against Muslims.
The scars of last May's violence remain. Recent visitors to Taungoo say there are empty lots where former homes and businesses once stood. They have all been cleaned up and left empty. The mosques in Taungoo remained closed as of May 2002. Muslims have been forced to worship in their homes. Local Muslim leaders complain that they are still harassed, and told that not more than five people can pray together even in the privacy of their own homes. After the violence, many local Muslims moved away from Taungoo to other nearby towns and as far away as Rangoon. But local residents say that some of them have now returned to Taungoo because they could not find work in Rangoon.
11 The U.S. State Department's Annual Report for International Religious Freedom issued in October, 2001, estimates that ten Muslims and ten Buddhists were killed, and notes "...there were credible reports that the monks that appeared to be inciting at least some of the violence were USDA or military personnel dressed as monks. After two days of violence the military stepped in and the violence immediately ended."