‘18,000 displaced’ in Myanmar riots
After three days of violence last week reduced a swathe of this central Myanmar city to blackened ruins, Win Htein, a local MP, sat in a small office in Meikhtila watching relief materials from donors being stocked in an adjacent room.
Win Htein, 70, has seen much in his time. An army officer from Myanmar’s elite military academy, he turned against the regime and was jailed for a total of 20 years. Last year, he stood as an opposition National League for Democracy candidate and was elected to Parliament in a historic by-election.
But he had never seen anything like this, he told The Straits Times. He saw local people – Muslims – being dragged out of their houses and killed, and entire neighbourhoods torched.
“I saw with my own eyes, for two days, merciless killing,” he said. “I tried to stop it but then they turned against me, saying I was protecting Muslims.”
Up to 40 people had been killed, he reckoned. The official count so far is 32. He estimated that the number of displaced who have fled their homes – a handful were Buddhist and the rest were Muslims – is more than twice the official number of 9,000. The Muslims were targeted by roving right-wing Buddhists in a frenzy fuelled by “hot-headed young monks”.
The violence in Meikhtila is reminiscent of last year’s sectarian violence that tore apart western Rakhine state, when minority Rohingya Muslims were driven out of their neighbourhoods by Arakanese Buddhists, who regard the Rohingya as illegal “Bengali” immigrants. Myanmar is a predominately Buddhist country, but about 5 per cent of its 60 million people are Muslims.
Anti-Muslim riots in Myanmar, driven by nationalist or right-wing Myanmar Buddhist ideology, are not new. But by and large, communities have coexisted peacefully. After a long period of iron-fisted military rule though, when army crackdowns on unrest would have been swift, fissures in society are now erupting with a taste of new freedoms.
This time, the violence was triggered by an argument between a Muslim gold-shop owner and his Buddhist customers. The gold shop quarrel, along with news that a Muslim man had allegedly killed a Buddhist monk in another locality, spurred Buddhist mobs to rampage through a Muslim neighbourhood and the situation spiralled out of control.
As he toured Meikhtila on Sunday, the United Nations Secretary-General’s special adviser on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, told journalists: “There is a certain degree of fear and anxiety among the people but there is no hatred.”
Win Htein said Mr Nambiar was too optimistic. He said: “I don’t think this problem can be easily solved… The hatred is too deep. This has changed things, maybe for good. I think it may be three months before the emergency can be lifted. We need to worry about reconciliation in Meikhtila before national reconciliation.”
It is clear that the scale of the violence has left the police force overwhelmed. In the small broken human bones among the ashes on a blackened slope by picturesque Meikhtila lake lies a warning for Myanmar’s rocky transition to democracy.
Locals said the bones are the remains of young Muslims from an Islamic school who had been chased by a mob and burned alive. The bones lay in the ashes amid blackened bamboo staves and burnt car tyres. It appeared the bodies had been smashed before they were burned.
A large area around the city’s main market, just off the old Yangon-Mandalay highway, was reduced to charred rubble. Along the main street for about 500m, mosques as well as Muslim houses and establishments had been torched and partially demolished. One house, burned out from the inside, had the number 786 – a symbol of the Quran used by Muslim communities in Myanmar – scrawled on its yellow wall with black spray paint and the exhortation to “root them out”.
A new Buddhist group, said to have influential backers, and using the number 969, apparently in a reference to Buddhist tenets and as a counter to the Muslims’ 786, has emerged in recent months. The fiery right-wing monk, U Wirathu, from Mandalay, has also been making inflammatory anti-Muslim speeches.
Myanmar’s army – the Tatmadaw – once feared as a tool of the ruthless dictatorial regimes that have run the country for some four decades before the transition and reforms in the last two years – stepped in under emergency rule last Friday, forcing a measure of calm. The town and its surroundings are under a curfew from 6pm to 6am. Armed troops have been stationed at road intersections and shops in the central market remain shuttered in the aftermath of the violence.
Buddhists who fled their homes are being sheltered in monasteries, while Muslims are being sheltered in government schools, locked and guarded by police.
Around the corner from Win Htein’s office, some members of 88 Generation – a group led by former political prisoners – was distributing aid.
“I live in a mixed Buddhist-Muslim neighbourhood in Yangon,” said a visiting member of 88 Generation, who is a 38-year-old Buddhist and former political prisoner who asked not to be named. “If this were to happen there, our lives would be destroyed.”
For now, Meikhtila is calm. But over the weekend, homes were torched in Ywadan village, 66km away, and in Tatkon township, on the northern edges of Naypyidaw. In Yangon, a large number of mixed Muslim-Buddhist neighbourhoods also remain on edge.