Myanmar has launched an official inquiry into a blaze at a Muslim school that killed 13 boys, state media said yesterday, as authorities sought to dismiss fears the fire was linked to religious unrest.
A seven-member commission is to set up a “probe into the death of the young boys” in the Yangon mosque complex, according to the English-language New Light of Myanmar, which said the group would present its findings by tomorrow.
The blaze early on Tuesday spread fears among local Muslims that their community may have been targeted following a spate of Buddhist-Muslim killings and arson that has spread across central Myanmar in recent weeks.
However, authorities have insisted the incident was a tragic accident, blaming an electrical fault and the inadequate response of two teachers who were sleeping at the school when the fire broke out.
“We have handed over evidence to the commission already and they will continue to investigate the case. It should be easy for them because we have found the cause,” said Myint Aye, head of local district police.
He said one of the teachers was being questioned in custody, while police were still searching for the other man.
State media accused the detained man of falsely spreading rumors that the fire was started deliberately.
About 70 children, some orphans, were sleeping in dormitories at the school when the fire broke out under the stairs, according to authorities, who said the victims died of suffocation when they were unable to escape because of bars on the windows.
Police officers remained deployed in front of the mosque and on nearby streets yesterday, but the area appeared calm, an Agence France-Presse reporter said.
Hundreds of mourners packed a Muslim cemetery in a northern suburb of the city to bury the bodies on Tuesday afternoon, with many in the crowd expressing fears the fire had been started deliberately.
However, local Muslim leader Ye Naung Thein, who initially raised concerns that the fire may have been deliberate, said he believed “100 percent” the local authorities’ assertion that the blaze was an accident.
“We accept the commission,” he said on behalf of his Myanmar Mawlwy federation, one of several influential Muslim groups in Myanmar.
“Everything is reasonable and I do not think there was an external cause. This is because of the weakness of the mosque teachers in responding quickly enough to the alarm,” he said.
Electrical fires are common because of poor safety standards in poverty-stricken Myanmar, which is emerging from decades of military rule.
Two Muslim guards at the building failed to react to an alarm, Yangon police chief Win Naing said, adding one was in custody and the other had run away.
He said witness reports of a smell of fuel could be explained by the generator used to power the building.
Muslim leader Shine Win said earlier that he had spoken to students and teachers who reported slipping on an oily liquid on the ground floor while escaping, and urged the government to “reveal the truth.”
US ambassador Derek Mitchell in a statement expressed “heartfelt condolences” to the loved ones of all those affected.
“Given the severity of this event, we encourage the government to work closely with members of the community to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the cause of the fire,” he said.
Yangon has been tense, but mostly peaceful following the religious clashes which broke out in the town of Meiktila and later spread.
The conflict poses a major challenge for Burmese President Thein Sein, who has won international praise for his reform efforts since taking office two years ago.
The situation has calmed in recent days after the former general last Thursday vowed a tough response to the violence, which he blamed on “political opportunists and religious extremists.”