Scores of Myanmar Muslims held a rare protest in the country’s biggest city on Tuesday to demand justice for nine people killed by a Buddhist mob in an attack that has stirred communal tension.
The demonstration at a mosque in central Yangon was peaceful and ended by early evening, but at least six trucks loaded with police close by.
Some demonstrators showed pictures of the bloodied and beaten bodies of the nine Muslims who were killed on Sunday in Taunggoke in western Rakhine state, when anger erupted over the reported rape and murder of a Buddhist woman.
The Muslim demonstrators demanded justice, some shouting “religious freedom” and “eradicate terrorism”, referring to the attack on the bus full of Muslims, which happened after leaflets were handed out urging retribution for the young woman’s death.
Human rights activists and some Taunggoke residents said on Sunday those killed were Muslim pilgrims visiting Rakhine, with no connection to those blamed for killing the woman.
Protests are rare in Myanmar, where dissent was suppressed under the military’s five-decade rule, which ended 15 months ago when a reformist, civilian-led government took office.
Police Lieutenant-Colonel Thet Lwin, the officer in charge of handling the Tuesday protest, said police were mobilised to prevent any disturbance.
“The issue in question is nothing to do with race. All citizens are entitled to equal rights,” he told reporters.
The Burmese Muslim Association said in a statement that eight of the victims were travelling back to Yangon after attending a mosque when they were attacked by a group with knives, while two were from Rakhine state.
“The Rakhines are threatening the Muslims of the other towns of Rakhine state too,” it said.
Sunday’s killing of the Muslims and the reported murder of the woman come as tension between Buddhists and Rakhine state’s Muslim minority simmers.
Official media’s reporting of the incident has also been contentious, causing upset on Internet social media among Buddhists as well as Muslims.
Media used a slang word “kalar” to refer to Muslims. The word means guest and is considered derogatory to people of South Asian descent in Myanmar, many of whose ancestors entered the county from the Indian subcontinent under British colonial rule.
Ko Mya Aye, a Muslim who was jailed for his part in a 1988 pro-democracy student uprising against the then military junta, urged the protesters to disperse to avoid confrontation.
“We should not do anything that will make the present situation reverse and go back to square one,” he said, adding that the media’s choice of words in reporting the incident was “adding fuel to the fire”.
The Information Ministry, which oversees state media, had removed the contentious term from its website by early evening.