A row of burned-out buildings in Yangon's Dawbon Township, including a ward administration office. (Frontier)
A row of burned-out buildings in Yangon's Dawbon Township, including a ward administration office. (Frontier)

‘The shooting was relentless’: Terror grips a Yangon ward

Soldiers and police are terrorising a majority-Muslim ward in Dawbon Township and there are indications that they may be singling it out because of the faith of its residents.

By FRONTIER

Soldiers and police have targeted a majority-Muslim ward in Yangon Region’s Dawbon Township for savage repression, leading some to wonder if it’s being targeted because of its residents’ religion.

There’s speculation that security forces are trying to foment religious unrest in Nwe Aye, the largest of 14 wards in the township bordered by the Pazundaung Creek, Bago River and Thaketa Township.

The conflict in Nwe Aye also reflects the controversy over the military regime’s efforts to appoint new ward and village tract administrators following its February 1 takeover.

The ward was subjected to a barrage of live rounds, rubber bullets and stun grenades on the night of March 21, after a brief protest near traffic lights at the corner of Zingama and Minnandar roads that began at 10pm in defiance of the nightly 8pm to 4am curfew.

While the crowd dispersed from a protest lasting about 15 minutes, the ward’s General Administration Department office caught fire under suspicious but unexplained circumstances. Soldiers arrived at the scene moments later.

“After the protesters had begun returning home from the traffic lights, I heard about the arson of the office building. At the same time, I heard the sound of shooting and it was non-stop until after 11pm,” said a man aged about 50 who lives in the ward and did not want to be named. “The shooting was relentless,” he told Frontier.

The only known casualty was a man aged about 50 who was shot in the right arm.

The man, who said he had not been involved in the protest, was hit when he started running along Bogyoke Road – which marks the boundary between the Nwe Aye and neighbouring Bamar Aye wards – shortly after the shooting began.

“I was running on the road … I could hear the gunfire and the bullet hit me in the arm,” the injured man, who asked not to be identified, told Frontier that night.

Security forces also shot up more than 10 cars parked along another road in the ward, causing extensive damage, while another vehicle parked near the GAD office that caught fire was hacked by an axe. The owner of one of the damaged cars despaired about the incident and was reluctant to talk.

“I do not want to say anything. I do not believe anyone. If something happens, it’s only the people who have to suffer and there’s no one we can complain to. We just have to accept what happens to us,” he told Frontier.

A mobile phone shop next to the GAD office was also destroyed by the fire, causing losses that its owner estimated at about K20 million.

The owner, a woman who asked not to be named, told Frontier on March 22 that she was hiding in the shop with her family when it caught alight.

“After we heard that the ward office was set on fire, I heard the sound of gunfire outside the shop,” she said. “Because of the gunfire I dared not leave the shop. Finally, the whole family ran out because of the smoke. Soldiers asked who we were and we told them we were from the shop and they told us to stay at a community hall on the other side of the road.  My husband ran into the shop, but all he could salvage was a computer monitor.  Everything else went in the fire.”

The protest and the fire at the GAD office came only hours after soldiers had arrived in the ward and named a new administrator. Although the man had been the incumbent under the National League for Democracy government, residents said he was unpopular. In the November election, his son contested a seat for the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party but lost to the NLD candidate, they said.

“Residents in the ward had disliked the man after he was first elected, and when he was appointed again most residents were dissatisfied. I think the fire at the GAD office might be related to his re-appointment as administrator,” said a 40-year-old resident who requested anonymity.

One of the cars in Nwe Aye ward that was damaged on the night of March 21, allegedly by security forces. (Frontier)

The crackdown in Nwe Aye ward continued on March 22.

At about 7am, three vehicles of soldiers and police arrived in the ward and arrested more than 20 people accused of taking part in protests, then returned in the evening and arrested another 28 people, ward residents said.

“They had a list of names and addresses [of suspected protesters],” said a man aged about 25 who lives in the ward. “I have no idea how they were able to compile the list; we residents cannot even remember everyone who took part in the night protest,” he said, adding that most of those arrested were Muslims.

Nwe Aye ward has more than 3,000 households, and about 75 percent of its residents are Muslim, residents say. The 2014 census found that Nwe Aye, the most heavily populated ward in Dawbon, had a population of about 18,000, almost a quarter of township’s 75,000 residents.

One Muslim resident of Nwe Aye said she was so terrified that she and her family hid when soldiers and police returned on March 22. “They had come on three or four consecutive days before March 21. We are living in fear of the gunfire. I don’t know why they are doing this only in our ward. They come and threaten the ward every day. I don’t know what they want to happen,” she said. 

Another resident, a 50-year-old Buddhist man, also linked the harsh crackdown in the ward to its high Muslim population.

He said that if the intention was to incite religious unrest, then it was bound to fail.  “The people are not naïve; they have a good understanding of what is going on,” he said. 

Although the security forces have also been patrolling neighbouring Bamar Aye ward, which is majority Buddhist, they have rarely fired at residents there. 

One Bamar Aye resident said she believed soldiers were taking a softer approach there because most residents support the military and USDP.

“If they see someone outside their house when they are travelling around Bamar Aye ward, they ask questions and beat them. At 8:30pm the ward is completely silent,” she said. “But when some of the soldiers begin patrolling in Nwe Aye ward, we hear the sound of gunfire. We hear the sound of gunfire every night from Nwe Aye ward.”

Still, on March 18 soldiers descended on both wards and forced residents at gunpoint to dismantle and remove sandbag barricades that protesters had erected to block roads.

The soldiers returned on March 20 and were angered to discover more barricades had been erected in Bamar Aye ward. They forced residents to come out of their homes and remove them.

“They accused us of blocking the road and ordered one person from each house to help remove the barricades. They shouted that if there was no man, a woman should come out and remove the barricades. They shouted and cursed when they ordered people in the ward to remove the barricades,” the resident said.

As in Nwe Aye, the military has sought to name a new administrator in Bamar Aye, a resident said, but the move has not gone as planned.

“When the previous administrator was told he was going to be named as the new administrator, he refused the appointment, and he has since been ordained as a monk,” a Bamar Aye resident told Frontier. “We will have to wait and see who will be appointed.”

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