A mob of 1,000 Buddhists in Myanmar torched several homes and shops, mostly Muslim-owned, in a riot on Saturday.
The mob descended upon the village Htan Gone, located in the Sagaing region, in an act of retaliation after rumors spread that a Muslim man tried to sexually assault a young woman, Al Jazeera reported.
According to state television, about 42 houses and 15 shops were destroyed, but no injuries were reported.
The riot occurred after members of the mob surrounded a police station in Htan Gone, which is about 10 miles south of the town of Kantbalu. The mob demanded that the police hand over the suspect in the attempted assault, an officer told the Associated Press.
Al Jazeera’s Veronica Pedrosa, reporting from Bangkok, said, “These thousand people were carrying swords and spears and singing the national anthem as they moved."
She added, "This falls into a pattern of violence against Muslims that's been happening for more than a year now. It seems to start with an isolated criminal act, which rumors say are perpetrated by a Muslim, but then there is mob violence as a consequence.”
Sectarian violence in Myanmar has been brewing since 2011, when a civilian government replaced the country’s military rulers.
The nation of approximately 60 million people is predominantly Buddhist, with a substantial Muslim minority accounting for about 5 percent of the population.
The unrest first began in the western, coastal state of Rakhine, which borders highly populated Bangladesh, and is home to a Muslim ethnic group called the Rohingya. Nationalist Buddhists accuse the Rohingya of illegally occupying the country and taking Buddhist land.
Though the status of the Rohingya is debated, most Muslims in other parts of Myanmar do have full citizenship. Some families claiming roots dating back at least a century to colonial times, when British authorities placed Muslim outsiders as bureaucrats in Myanmar to help control the Buddhist population.
As is the case with many former colonies, the imperial leaders may have left and been replaced by independent rule, but sharp ethnic divides in the population remain fully intact.
GlobalPost has reported extensively on the ‘969’ campaign in Myanmar, which has driven violence between Buddhists and Muslims.
The movement, led by a popular Mandalay monk named Wirathu, is growing in popularity. Buddhists all over Myanmar are encouraged to decorate their businesses with ‘969’ signs. 969 is ostensibly a symbol of Buddhist pride based on a numerological representation of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, but the signage is also an implicit warning to Muslims to stay away.
Wirathu has released popular tape recordings of his speeches preaching against the dangers of a growing Muslim population, which he warns will to destroy Buddhist culture.
“We Buddhists allow [Muslims] to freely practice their faith,” he said in a February speech. “But once these evil Muslims have control, they will not let us practice our religion. We must be careful. These Muslims really hate us.”
Most Burmese Muslims are well aware of the fear and anger directed towards them, and the violence between the two groups has increased over the past year. Battles have broken out between conflicting mobs that fight with machetes and staves, and many Rohingya Muslims have been forced into squalid refugee camps.
“In the past, people of different races and religions peacefully coexisted,” Min Ko Naing, a democracy advocate and former political prisoner, told the Myanmar-focused news outlet Mizzima. “I worry that we cannot maintain this tradition and I worry that our country will no longer be peaceful.”