A high-level government official in Myanmar’s Rakhine State is set on demolishing hundreds of buildings, including mosques and Islamic religious schools, in the state's Muslim-majority townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung.
"We are working to bring down the mosques and other buildings constructed without permission in accordance with the law,” Col. Htein Linn, Rakhine’s security and border affairs minister, told local media on Wednesday. One of his staff members told VOA's Burmese Service that Minister Linn, recently appointed by Myanmar's de factor leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is leading a campaign to review and raze an unknown number of structures.
Myanmar officials say an estimated 2,270 illegally-built buildings, including nine mosques and 24 Muslim religious schools, are currently standing in Maungdaw, while some 1,056 illegal buildings, including three mosques and 11 madrasas, stand in Buthidaung.
Rakhine State, one of Burma's poorest regions, is home to an estimated 125,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims, the majority of whom remain confined to temporary camps following waves of deadly violence in 2012 between Buddhists and Muslims.
In Myanmar, also known as Burma, the long-persecuted ethnic minority is largely viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many have lived in the country for generations. Increased freedom of speech since the military stepped back from direct rule in 2011 has allowed for the unleashing of long-held anti-Muslim sentiment.
Construction of mosques and religious schools in the region was banned in 1962, when military rule was first established in the country.
The apparently sudden decision to implement the ban on religious structures coincides with Aung San Suu Kyi's address to the United Nation's General Assembly, which punctuated her first visit to the United States as state counselor and foreign minister. During her visit, President Barack Obama agreed to lift economic sanctions on the Southeast Asian country, citing its “remarkable social and political transformation.”
Obama's decision to lift sanctions rankled some human rights activists who say the government has yet to do enough to address the Rohingya's longstanding persecution.
Muslim community leader U Aye Lwin, a member of a Rohingya conflict investigatory commission led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, tells VOA that local Muslims are deeply concerned and have already reached out to other Myanmar officials.
“Muslim religious leaders did attempt to meet with the Union Minister for Religious Affairs," he said. "There is freedom of religion according to law, and so religious sites should be in place or should be renovated.”
According to a report by the Democratic Voice of Burma, the plan to destroy the facilities "has led to concern among residents, with Muslim leaders indicating that such moves could create unnecessary tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in the western state."
The publication also said Linn confirmed that an upcoming official announcement will include a scheduled timeline for demolition.
While visiting with President Obama last week, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed ongoing tensions among Myanmar's 135 ethnic groups, calling her administration especially focused on the situation in Rakhine state, where she said "communal strife is not something we can ignore."
According to wire news reports, at least eight people were killed and thousands displaced earlier this week by clashes in southeast Myanmar, where renewed violence is threatening to undercut the new government's push for peace. Fighting also broke out this month between government troops and an ethnic rebel splinter group known as the DKBA in Karen state, near the border with Thailand.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Burmese Service. Some information is from Reuters.