YANGON (Reuters) - Scores of Myanmar Muslims held a rare protest in the country’s biggest city on Tuesday to demand justice for nine pilgrims killed by a Buddhist mob in an attack that has stirred communal tension.
The demonstration at a mosque in central Yangon was peaceful and ended by early evening, but at least six trucks loaded with police close by.
Some demonstrators showed pictures of the bloodied and beaten bodies of the nine Muslims who were killed on Sunday in Taunggoke in western Rakhine state, when anger erupted over the reported rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by a gang of young Muslims.
Myanmar is predominately Buddhist and many members of the majority community resent members of minority groups descended from people from South Asia, most of whom are Muslim.
The Muslim demonstrators demanded justice, some shouting “religious freedom” and “eradicate terrorism”, referring to the attack on the bus full of Muslims, which happened after leaflets were handed out urging retribution for the young woman’s death.
Human rights activists and some Taunggoke residents said on Sunday those killed were Muslim pilgrims visiting Rakhine, with no connection to those blamed for killing the woman.
Protests are rare in Myanmar, where dissent was suppressed under the military’s five-decade rule, which ended 15 months ago when a reformist, civilian-led government took office.
Demonstrations have since been legalised, albeit with numerous restrictions, and are taking place more often over issues like land ownership and power shortages, emboldening activists and testing the restraint of security forces.
Police Lieutenant-Colonel Thet Lwin, the officer in charge of handling the Tuesday protest, said police were mobilised to prevent any disturbance.
“The issue in question is nothing to do with race. All citizens are entitled to equal rights,” he told reporters.
Sunday’s killing of the Muslims and the reported murder of the woman come as tension between Buddhists and Rakhine state’s Muslim minority simmers.
Official media’s reporting of the incident has also been contentious, causing upset on Internet social media among Buddhists as well as Muslims.
Media used a slang word “kalar” to refer to Muslims. The word means guest and is considered derogatory to people of South Asian descent in Myanmar, many of whose ancestors entered the county from the Indian subcontinent under British colonial rule.
Ko Mya Aye, a Muslim who was jailed for his part in a 1988 pro-democracy student uprising against the then military junta, urged the protesters to disperse to avoid confrontation.
“We should not do anything that will make the present situation reverse and go back to square one,” he said, adding that the media’s choice of words in reporting the incident was “adding fuel to the fire”.
The Information Ministry, which oversees state media, had removed the contentious term from its website by early evening.
Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Editing by Martin Petty and Robert Birsel