Date: 05/04/2013

Buddhist-Muslim Tensions Spread as 8 Detainees Die in Indonesia


Published: April 5, 2013

JAKARTA — Simmering religious and ethnic violence in Myanmar spread beyond the Southeast Asian country’s borders on Friday when a brawl broke out at an immigration center in Indonesia between Muslim and Buddhist detainees, leaving eight dead and 15 wounded, officials said.

Ethnic Rifts Strain Myanmar as It Moves Toward Democracy (April 5, 2013)

Myanmar: Dozens Arrested in Investigation of Riots (April 5, 2013)

A group of 117 Rohingya refugees and 11 illegal fishermen from Myanmar were being held together in the same area of a government detention center in Belawan, a port city in North Sumatra Province, when fighting erupted in the morning, said Herianto, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Department of Immigration in Jakarta.

“There were eight fishermen killed; they are the Buddhists,” Mr. Herianto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said. “The injured detainees were Rohingya,” a Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar.

The disturbance erupted around 12:45 a.m., with the detainees using metal and wood from broken chairs to attack one another, according to Sabarita Ginting, an immigration office spokeswoman in Medan. The police subdued it by mid-morning, Indonesia’s Metro TV and news portal reported. The injured were taken to a hospital in the provincial capital Medan, 22 kilometers west of Belawan.

The Associated Press, citing the local police, reported that the clash began after a Muslim Rohingya confronted a Buddhist fisherman about sectarian violence back home in Myanmar.

Vivian Tan, a regional spokeswoman with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Bangkok, said the detention center’s detainees are usually a mix of foreign asylum seekers, refugees such as the Rohingya and people picked up for illegal entry, such as the Buddhist fishermen.

The UNHCR released a statement Friday afternoon calling for calm among the groups, and urged Indonesian authorities to act to prevent further violence, including moving detainees into community housing as soon as possible.

The brawl in the detention center underscores the tensions and deep animosity between Muslims and Buddhists that have surfaced in Myanmar as the country tries to embrace democracy after five decades of military rule.

Earlier on Friday, regional officials expressed concern that violence within Myanmar could spill over to its Southeast Asian neighbors. While opening a joint two-day workshop in Jakarta on Friday morning on conflict prevention and preventative diplomacy, Vijay Nambiar of India, a U.N. undersecretary general and special adviser on Myanmar to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, told a press conference that “there are regional implications of these issues, which need to be given regional treatment.”

Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia told the workshop that it was difficult to distinguish whether a security challenge in one nation was also a regional one.

“Very rapidly, any conditions that are unstable even within countries can become at least a nontraditional type of security threat to the rest of the region,” he said. “This applies to all of us, basically.”

Tensions remain high in Yangon and other Myanmar cities, with Muslims on alert for attacks following the recent rioting in the central city of Meiktila that killed more than 40 people, most of them Muslims.

Since the attacks in Meiktila, which began March 20 and in some cases were led by Buddhist monks, rioting spread to other parts of Myanmar, leaving mosques and hundreds of Muslims’ homes destroyed.

A fire in the dormitory of a Muslim school earlier this week in Yangon that left 13 dead was blamed on a faulty electrical device but nonetheless heightened fears among the Muslim community.

Muslim organizations and human rights groups have criticized Myanmar’s handling of religious and ethnic violence during the past year, including violence in western Myanmar that killed more than 150 people and displaced more than 100,000 people, mainly Muslims.

The government has said the violence in Rakhine state, near the border with Bangladesh, was organized by unidentified groups seeking to stir up religious hatred but has yet to arrest any of the leaders of the attacks.

The majority of those displaced are Rohingya who have been unable to return to their villages, and remain in squalid refugee camps. Not recognized as citizens in Myanmar, thousands of Rohingya have fled by boat to neighboring countries, mainly Malaysia and Indonesia, both Muslim-majority countries. Thousands more have been taken in by Saudi Arabia in recent years.

Joe Cochrane reported from Jakarta and Thomas Fuller reported from Bangkok.