In Myanmar, religious tensions simmer as madrassas shuttered

Mon Jun 19, 2017 2:19am EDT
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By Shoon Naing

YANGON (Reuters) - Chit Tin, a 55-year-old Muslim man has prayed at the same madrassa in eastern Yangon his whole adult life, most of it spent under a junta that crushed opposition, ruined Myanmar's economy and turned it into an international pariah state.

But even as the father-of-four endured poverty and isolation, the Muslim religious school, which doubles as a mosque, had remained a focal point of his community - until a month ago, when Buddhist nationalists raided it and forced authorities to shut it down on the grounds it did not have a permit to operate as a place of worship.

When Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, started some three weeks ago, hundreds of residents braved the monsoon rain to join prayers organized in the street nearby. Local authorities banned the event and threatened those attending with jail.

"I feel deeply sad, as if the sky has fallen down," said Chit Tin, one of the few Muslims from the neighborhood who agreed to speak to Reuters. Most residents refused to discuss the restrictions, saying they feared repercussions.

One of the youth members of the community, Moe Zaw, now faces a fine or six months in jail for not obtaining a permit to organize the prayers, according to a notification he received from a court.

The closure of the religious school is among a series of incidents that have stoked religious tensions in the country's commercial capital in recent weeks.

Although some of the Buddhist hardliners involved were arrested, human rights monitors say the incident shows how Aung San Suu Kyi's 14-month-old civilian administration is struggling to tackle discrimination against Muslims.

Suu Kyi's ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) did not field any Muslim candidates in the historic 2015 election that elevated it to power on pledges of modernizing the country and democratization.   Continued...

A Muslim boy sits during prayers in a mosque in Yangon June 7, 2017. Picture taken June 7, 2017 REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun