The small Muslim community in the border trading town of Muse, Shan State, is reeling following the death of a young Muslim man while in police custody. Ko Phyo Thu Ya, 22, who worked in a telephone accessories shop, was arrested after an altercation with a police officer’s son.
By the time his parents tried to visit him the morning after his arrest Ko Phyo Thu Ya was severely injured. When they asked police if they could see their son, they were directed to the local hospital. They found him shackled to a bed, his face and body badly bruised and clothes bloodstained. He died the same day, October 31.
“All the police would say on my son’s case were lies,” said his mother, Daw Sabel. “They are just like murders who operate with permission.”
The death and murky circumstances around the incident have rent an upset in the small but diverse border town. Local residents say relations between Muslims and other locals of Muse are relatively good because most identify as Shan and speak the Shan language. Relations with non-Shan Bamar domestic migrant workers from upper Myanmar are reportedly more strained.
The city is a major trading point on the Myanmar-China border which attracts thousands of workers from all over the country as well as from across the border. There is a significant Chinese-speaking community. About 600 Muslims live in Muse, forming around 3 percent of the town’s population, according to one of the census workers in Shan State – the official religion figures from the 2014 census have yet to be released.
Ever since communal violence engulfed Rakhine State in 2012, and in the wake of a number of other violent incidents ricocheting around the country, including in Meiktila in 2013, tensions have smouldered between Muslim and Bamar communities. Many believe these stress points have been exacerbated by the hard-line anti-Muslim lobbyists at the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, known as Ma Ba Tha.
U Sai Khin Maung, a Muslim Shan business owner who was born in Muse, said his community had recently come under building pressure.
“I feel I am a Shan, and there are no problems between ethnic Shan and local Muslims. But there are problems with Bamar who come from upper Myanmar. As far as conducting our business is concerned, things are generally fine in Muse,” said the 51-year-old owner of Khwar Nyo import-export company. Following Ko Phyo Thu Ya’s death, however, police have ordered the closure of the town’s two remaining mosques, apparently fearing the spread of rumours about the incident. Muslim schools have also been paid visits by police.
“It is not only us. Even the Shan and Kachin churches are also checked like that. We don’t feel secure like others,” said U Sai Khin Maung.
Ko Phyo Thu Ya was arrested following an apparent fight pitting him and his younger brother and Ko Sat Paing Hmuu against the son of a police officer, U Ye Myint. The fight erupted on October 30 at a local barbecue shop. According to the mother of the deceased, the policeman’s son was drunk and had called Ko Phyo Thu Ya to antagonise him.
Initially the brothers returned home after the quarrel, but then they went back to the restaurant, where officer U Ye Myint arrested Ko Phyo Thu Ya. Daw Sabel and her husband at once went to U Ye Myint’s house to apologise, but the officer and his family were angry and accused the brothers of “destroying” their son’s eye.
Having failed to bail out their son, the couple say went back to the police station the next morning, when they were directed to the hospital. Muse police commander U Soe Than was not available for comment when approached by The Myanmar Times.
The parents have now engaged human rights lawyer U Robert Sann Aung of the Yangon Lawyers’ Network.
The family of the deceased insist the incident was not motivated by religious bigotry. “All the Shan and Kachin people here know my son. They’ve helped us. My NRC card says I am of Shan nationality. This is not about religion,” she said.
The exporter, U Sai Khin Maung, said that many educated Shan in Muse reject Ma Ba Tha’s position and wanted to live in peace. “My neighbours don’t want the kind of religious problems that occur elsewhere to happen here. They just want to maintain their culture and live peacefully,” he said.
Ko Sai Myat Aung, secretary of the Shan Literature and Culture Committee, said the local Chinese community were there just to do business, and had little interaction with Shan people.
“We live peacefully with native Muslims and attend each other’s funeral ceremonies. We work together. But the Chinese stay apart,” he said, adding that the gambling and drug addiction associated with the Chinese were harmful to the local culture.
Sai Aung, 22, a local Muslim fruit trader, said the death of Ko Phyo Thu Ya did not represent anti-Muslim discrimination. “Though we Muslims are very few, our Shan neighbours help us with all their hearts,” he said.
He added that Muslim traders from China and India tend not to spend much time in Muse when they cannot attend the mosque. “If the places of prayer are closed they don’t stay, which affects our business.”
The main ethnic problem, he said, was between the Shan and the Bamar.
“We live together in the same quarter, we donate to their monasteries and there are no problems between us. But in former times there was hatred. Shan people wouldn’t even sing Bamar songs,” he said.
Ma Nang Thin Zar Hnin, a 20-year-old student and Muslim resident of Muse, said she had studied Shan literature since she was young, and she and her family spoke the Shan language at home. “I’m preparing to sing Shan songs in the monastery for their graduation from the Shan literature course I teach. My friends and I have been going to the monastery since childhood. I’ve never seen any discrimination,” she said.