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'They stood shouting at us to come out and be killed': Anti-Muslim violence in central Burma has left thousands of people homeless

  • @peterpopham

In a wilderness of scorched rubble and twisted corrugated iron, a woman with wilted jasmine flowers in her hair was trying to locate what was left of her life. Ma Khin Aye lost her home and all her possessions when an anti-Muslim mob – including Buddhist neighbours with whom she had been friendly for years – set fire to it, along with all the others in the block in the central Burmese city of Meiktila. Armed with sticks and iron bars they then stood in the street, threatening to murder the terrified residents as they fled.

Ma Khin Aye, 48, escaped the flames with her aged mother, who was almost comatose with shock. She braved the mob, got her mother on to the back of a scooter and took her to hospital. A week later, she came back to the ruins, rooting through the rubble to see if  anything could be salvaged. While she did so, youths were looting the neighbourhood. They took anything of value that remained . Meiktila had been under army lockdown for a week, but neither the soldiers nor the police were there to stop them.

“I have no enemies. I have been living here for a long time,” Ma Khin Aye, who is unmarried and sells toys in a local market, told The Independent. “Our communities have always been friendly: nothing like this has ever happened. At Thingyan [Burmese New Year] they would invite us into their homes; we would invite them into ours for Eid.” Who started the attacks? “Some of them were strangers – but when they wanted to find the homes of the kalar [Muslims], it was local people who brought them here. They stood there with sticks, shouting, ‘Come out, kalar, and we will kill you…’”

Two years after Burma began its trek towards democracy, and one year after the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s by-election triumph, the anti-Muslim violence took at least 43 lives when it broke out in Meiktila last month, and has left thousands homeless. Beginning on 20 March, it raged for days and was quelled only when President Thein Sein declared an emergency, sending in the army. About 42 people have been arrested.

Unlike the anti-Muslim eruptions last year in Rakhine state, on the border with Bangladesh, where hostility has been simmering for decades, the Meiktila attacks came out of nowhere. When the army stamped them out, Muslim communities in 15 towns and villages to the south of the city came under attack, with mosques and homes knocked down. Then, last week, the flames arrived in Rangoon: 15 children and youths died from smoke inhalation when their madrassa caught fire on Monday evening. The government was quick to say it was an accident, blaming an overheating transformer. The Independent spoke to several Muslims who claimed it was a deliberate attack, pointing to evidence of petrol burns inside the building.

The following night another fire  almost broke out. Five men were apprehended carrying petrol cans into a mosque near the city centre.

It is just two years since Thein Sein, a former general, became Burma’s first civilian president after decades of military rule and began rushing through reforms. The progress since then has been exhilarating, but the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment has suddenly thrown all that into question.

Some believe the riots are due to the sudden release from 50 years of authoritarian rule: destructive urges held in check all these years are being given vent. Tensions have been heightened since hundreds were killed and more than 100,000 made homeless during clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in western Burma last year. But as Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the Irrawaddy news website points out, religious riots also occurred under military rule.

“In past decades, many Burmese people believed rulers of the Socialist and military regimes used religious tension as a political weapon to distract the public from anti-government movements,” he wrote.

A movement known as 969, urging Buddhists to shun Muslim shops and businesses, has gained momentum in recent months. The monk who heads the movement, known as Wirathu, was jailed in 2003 for inciting violence in Mandalay state, but denies blame on this occasion. “We’ve just become scapegoats … Within our circle, 969 is not violent,” he said.

Although Thein Sein was handpicked for the role of President by Senior General Than Shwe, the speed of his reforms is said to have left some of his old army colleagues aghast. By-elections a year ago brought Ms Suu Kyi and more than 40 of her National League for Democracy colleagues into parliament. The old soldiers who run Thein Sein’s party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, fear that the NLD will win the next election, due in 2015, with a landslide. During the Meiktila violence, Thein Sein said the efforts of “political opportunists and religious extremists” trying to sow hatred between faiths would “not be tolerated”. 

“We must rise above 60 years of bitterness,” he said. But the level of devastation in Meiktila has caused many to question Thein Sein’s ability to protect victims such as Ma Khin Aye.

A history of violence: Religious tensions

1962 Former military commander and Prime Minister Ne Win seizes power in a coup. Laws against Muslims are introduced in the decades of military rule that follow, fuelling animosity.

1997 Monks lead violence against Muslims in the Mandalay region, burning homes and religious sites.

2002 Amid growing turmoil, a Human Rights Watch report states: “The government has failed to take effective action to protect Muslims in Burma… and taken no action to punish those responsible for destroying Muslim homes and mosques.”

2003 Wirathu, a leading figure of the extremist Buddhist movement 969, is jailed.

2012 More than a year after a civilian government is installed, violence leaves more than 180 Rohingya Muslims dead and over 100,000 homeless.

2013 Buddhist-Muslim riots erupt in Meiktila, killing more than 40 with over 13,000 left homeless.