3rd May 2018, London – Ultra-nationalists in Hinthada Township have made significant efforts to confiscate and destroy a local cemetery, which has been owned and operated by Muslims for the past 138 years. Hinthada has a Muslim population of about 6,000 and the cemetery is a significant place for them in regards to religion, dignity, family, history and culture.
The land was registered as garden land under the numbers 114/0.857 acre and 116/1.731 acre. Successive governments permitted the land to be used as a cemetery until 1994 when they revoked permission. Following this local Muslims purchased a plot of land situated in the outskirts of town and they have used it as a cemetery for the past 24 years. Since that time, the old cemetery has been used as a gathering place for devotees to pray on days of religious significance.
Beyond denying permission to bury their dead, the authorities have also refused to grant permission for the local Muslims to refurbish graves in the cemetery. Instead, authorities have been gradually confiscating the land. In 1993, a 20 foot plot of land from the old cemetery situated on the Hinthada Yote Road was confiscated by the military authorities, led by Major Thar Aye. Then in 2001 a 25 foot wide piece of the cemetery on Sin Eakari and Bo Myat Htun Roads was also confiscated. In 2015, an area of land from the old cemetery measuring 100 feet by 70 feet, facing Hinthada roundabout, was confiscated by the order of the Head of District General Administration Department, U San Htay. At that time, the bathhouse inside the cemetery compound, which stood on the confiscated land, was demolished. The bathhouse is an important religious facility for washing the dead body before the burial.
At the same time they were confiscating land in the old cemetery, the authorities were denying permission for necessary additions to the new cemetery, such as gutters and fencing. As a result, the cemetery has been used by squatters or intruders and it is vulnerable to attacks or defacement.
Currently, authorities in collusion with NLD members, township municipal authorities and Ma Ba Tha supporters, are planning to build a garden, car depo and apartment blocks for the civil servants on the land belong to a historic Muslim cemetery. Such development could easily become a source of religious conflict between the members of the Buddhist and Muslim communities, and unfortunately this situation has been exasperated under the democratically elected reformist NLD government.
According to some local residents, businesspersons are encouraging the authorities to demolish the cemetery so they can build a park on the land for their own economic benefits. The local residents of Hinthada also met with officials from the Township Development and General Administration departments on 11 August 2017 to discuss clearing bushes inside the old cemetery compound. They said if the bushes were not cleared it could be hazardous for the wellbeing of town’s population because the land could be used by criminals as a hideout.
On 27 August 2017, people of the town voted on the plan to build a park on the cemetery land at the town hall. On 30 September 2017, trees and bushes inside the old cemetery compound were cleared under the auspices of the Hinthada Township General Administration Department. The move was controversial enough that even some monks from Hinthada had criticised the authorities for cutting age-old trees.
The committee, who are the Buddhist ultra-nationalists group, designated to implement the plan to transform the old cemetery into a park held a media briefing on 4 April 2018 in front of the government office. During the briefing they accused the authorities of failing to abide by their promises on several occasions. The activists then conducted a public campaign on 19 April, where they distributed stickers detailing their demands to transform cemetery into a park. The committee then issued a statement to express its position on the dispute over the cemetery.
It said the committee has already
1. Collected opinions of the people of Hinthada
2. Requested relevant government departments and ministries to act based on the majority opinion of the people of the town.
3. Held several rounds of discussions with relevant ministries following this request.
4. Informed the public on the outcomes of these discussions with the authorities through the media.
The committee said in a post on their Facebook page that it would conduct another demonstration to express their demands on 3 May. The permit application has requested for 5000 people to attend the demonstration on that day.
As these events unfold, the State Government has failed to prevent these provocative actions by some Buddhists and ultra-nationalists in the town, which could easily turn into conflict between the members of the two major religions. Currently a Buddhist ultra-nationalist group is organizing demonstrations on 3rd May and collecting public surveys to encourage and provoke civilians to speak out directly and publicly against the old Muslim Cemetery. The group is led by Ko Sein Thaung from Shwe Ku ward, Ko Soe Win from Tartaung ward, Ko Phyo Myint Thein from U Yin Taung ward, Ko Aung Kaung Myat from Pha Yar Gyi ward, Ko Nae Myo from Lat Tha Mar ward and Ko Kyaw Bo Swe from Lei Taw ward.
On the Muslims side of the issue, residents feel vulnerable and are afraid of conflict. They have taken several steps to avoid confrontation while still seeking autonomy and fundamental rights on the issue. These steps included requesting permission from authorities to refurbish the cemetery with the Muslims paying the cost, requesting authorities to allow a signboard outside the cemetery with the dates “1885-1994” highlighting the opening date and date the cemetery was forced closed by official order. Authorities so far have failed to respond to this request.
As a result, local Muslims are on the verge of losing a sacred place of historical and religious significance to them. Land that they owned has had its religious purpose denied and its history is being erased by the government and local community. These instances are also part of a larger trend of religious obstruction by the state against Muslims in Burma coupled with attempts to erase their history in the country at a time where Muslims are increasingly being treated as outsiders. Recent efforts to erase Muslim history inside of Burma are almost always done in concert with efforts to degrade or delegitimize their citizenship status. With the situation worsening, early action by the international community is the only certain way to prevent further infringements on human rights or even an outbreak of violence targeting minority communities. Recent years have already shown this manifest in anti-Muslim riots throughout the country and the campaign of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State. The current situation in Hinthada can still be addressed and resolved before tensions worsen, but it requires parties willing to act before situations deteriorate beyond repair.
Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) is based in London, operate across Burma and works for human rights, minority rights and religious freedom in Burma. BHRN has played a crucial role advocating for human rights and religious freedom with politicians and world leaders.
Executive Director of the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN)
T: +44(0) 740 345 2378