Mon Hnin, a 29-year-old Muslim woman from Meiktila, in central Myanmar, spent the night of March 20 with her daughter and mother-in-law hiding in terror in the bushes on the fringes of her neighbourhood.
KILLING FIELDS: Right, the madrasa where more than 40 Muslims were killed on March 21.
A wave of murderous anti-Muslim riots led by Buddhist extremists had exploded earlier that day in the dusty town with a population of 100,000 people, located 130km north of the capital, Nay Pyi Taw. Like the houses of many other Muslims in the town, the one belonging to Mon Hnin, whose name has been changed for security reasons, had been destroyed by a Buddhist mob in the Mingalar Zay Yone quarter and she and her relatives had to take refuge in the first place they could find.
The next day, she witnessed something far worse than the destruction of her property, as she told Spectrum at a non-governmental refugee camp near Meitktila where she now lives with about 3,400 other Muslim refugees. The bushes where Mon Hnin, her daughter and her mother-in law had hidden the previous night are not far from a local madrasa _ an Islamic school _ where one of the worst episodes of the violence took place. According to several eyewitnesses, that morning a Buddhist mob attacked the school killing at least 30 students and four teachers.
Mon Hnin said she saw about 30 policemen arriving in trucks about 8am. From her vantage point, she saw how the students and teachers of the madrasa gave up to police the weapons they had improvised to defend themselves. She claimed that a group of them was offered the chance to be evacuated from the area in police trucks, but they were attacked by the mob before reaching the vehicles.
One of those she saw being killed was her husband, a halal butcher who was stabbed to death. The policemen in the area did nothing to stop the carnage. Shortly afterwards, Mon Hnin, her daughter and mother-in-law were given shelter in the house of a Buddhist neighbour.
From March 20-22, this dusty garrison city was engulfed by the worst communal violence in Myanmar since the anti-Muslim pogroms that took place in Rakhine state in June and October of last year.
The trigger of the violence was a brawl between the Muslim owners of a gold shop and two Buddhists who tried to sell a gold hair clip on the morning of March 20. Several different, and often contradictory, accounts have emerged of the incident, but there is no doubt that a Buddhist mob responded by hurling stones at the shop and ended up wrecking the building.
That evening the riots became deadly when about 5.30pm a monk was attacked by four Muslim men who torched him alive. The monk died in hospital that same evening. Just a few hours later the city was on fire when groups of Buddhists unleashed their fury on Muslims and their properties under the gaze of security forces, who for two days watched the violence without taking any action.
Many witnesses have confirmed the failure of the police to prevent the violence. One of them is Win Htein, the local MP of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi. Win Htein, a former army officer who spent 20 years in jail for his political activities and used to organise security for ”the Lady” after her release from house arrest on November 2010, told Spectrum in the ramshackle local NLD office that he witnessed the carnage in front of the madrasa.
”I saw with my own eyes two people already dead and five more put to death in front of me.”
He said he tried to protect the Muslims, but was threatened by the mob. Then he called the chief minister of Mandalay Division, Gen Ye Myint, and told him what was happening. ”He said he’d already given orders to the police to take action, but there was no action at all,” Win Htein said.
It took a further day before the army stepped in and restored some order in the city. By then, at least 42 people had been killed and more than 60 were injured. Those are the official estimates, but the real figures are likely to be considerably higher, considering that at least 30 people died in a single incident at the madrasa.
BADGE OF HATE: 969 stickers on sale in Yangon.
One local reporter who witnessed the carnage, told Spectrum that she arrived at the scene at 5pm and saw a pile of several dozen corpses just metres from the madrasa. When she went back four hours later, the pile had been set on fire.
On March 21, the young reporter saw and filmed a group of Buddhists slit the throat of a Muslim man, before dousing him with petrol and setting him on fire. She continued recording despite being told to stop, but eventually had to flee the scene when six or seven Buddhist men chased her, hitting her on the back.
The reporter said that during the time she was in Meiktila, from March 20-22, she saw only Buddhists carrying weapons and the violence was fundamentally one-sided, with the Muslims always on the receiving end.
Win Htein said the attacks were spontaneous and perpetrated by Buddhist residents of the city, but others witnesses claimed the attackers were unknown to them and seemed to be following a well coordinated plan.
Three weeks after the riots, the Muslim quarters of Meiktila are large wastelands of destroyed buildings and charred cars, resembling the aftermath of a war or natural disaster, and where the poorest inhabitants of the city scavenge for scrap to sell. More than 18,000 residents, most of them Muslims, have been displaced by the violence and most of them are now living in government-controlled camps. The camps are off-limits to journalists, but there are also unofficial camps like the one where Mon Hnin lives.
The government has announced plans to rebuild the destroyed houses within two months, but few believe in its ability or even its willingness to do so. Many Muslim refugees fear their situation might become permanent, as happened to the Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state, in western Myanmar. Unlike the Rohingya, however, the Muslims of central Myanmar are officially recognised as citizens of the country.
THE VIOLENCE SPREADS
After Meiktila, the anti-Muslim attacks spread to other parts of central Myanmar, getting dangerously close to the the nation’s largest city, Yangon. In the Bago region, the pattern of violence against Muslim people and property was repeated in no less than 14 villages.
More than 80 refugees from Minhla, a town with a population of about 100,000, are now living in a mosque in Yangon after fleeing a wave of attacks on March 27.
Ko Maung Win (not his real name), a teacher at the local mosque recounted how a mob of Buddhist extremists attacked the mosque shortly after afternoon prayer. Nobody was killed or injured during the attacks.
FOMENTING DISCONTENT: Ashin Wirathu, famous for his inflammatory anti-Muslim speeches, at the Maseyein monastery in Mandalay.
He and other refugees from Minhla told Spectrum that the attacks came out of the blue, without any prior threat or warning. They said, however, that relations between the two communities had steadily soured after a monk visited the city at the end of February and gave a speech telling Buddhists to shun Muslim people and their shops. A woman who owned a grocery store in the market, and is now one of the refugees in the mosque, said she lost many Buddhist customers after the speech. Nevertheless, when the attacks started she was given refuge in the home of a Buddhist neighbour.
The violence has not yet reached Yangon, but in some of its Muslim neighbourhoods there is an almost palpable tension, particularly at night. Since the attacks in Meiktila, the residents of Mingalar Taungyungnunt, the main Muslim quarter of the former capital, have set up barricades and conduct nightly street patrols.
Muslim communities are abuzz with rumours, especially after the fire in an Islamic school in Yangon that claimed the lives of 13 children in the early hours of April 2. Few people believe the official line that the fire was accidental. The haste of the authorities to say it was, and their inability to find any eyewitness accounts further contributed to people’s suspicions.
Neighbours interviewed recently in the quarter said that, under the cloak of dark, people roam the streets in cars shouting threats and insults. Many of them are afraid that during the annual Songkran-like water festival there might be an attack similar to those in Meiktila and Bago. Many men sleep only a few hours a night, as they have to work at day and patrol the streets in the evening. Every entrance to the neighbourhood from the main streets is blocked with makeshift barricades manned by local men.
All of the men interviewed by Spectrum were keen to emphasise that their relations with an overwhelming majority of Buddhists have always been and continue to be peaceful and friendly. They put the blame on ill-defined groups of ”Buddhist terrorists”.
Like many other Muslims around the country, the residents of Mingalar Taungyungnunt feel unprotected and abandoned by local authorities and the central government. During two visits to the quarter at night, only a minimal police force could be seen on the streets.
”We don’t know who these people are, but we are not afraid. If they attack us, we will fight back,” said a young man in one of the barricades.
The anti-Muslim sentiment finds its expression in a campaign called 969, which encourages Buddhists to shop only in Buddhist outlets and calls for a defence of Buddhism in Myanmar against the supposed threat of a Islamisation. The campaign is named after the ”three jewels” of Buddhism _ the nine attributes of Buddha, the six attributes of his teachings, and the nine attributes of the Sangha. There are many 969 stickers in shops, taxis and cars around Yangon and other cities.
The most visible face of the 969 movement is Ashin Wirathu, a monk from Mandalay who is famous for his anti-Muslim speeches. The boyish-looking 45 year old with a calm demeanour and soft voice was jailed in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim riots and released under an amnesty in 2012. Spectrum met him in Masoeyein, a monastery in Mandalay whose monks are famous for their political activism.
Sitting beneath several huge portraits of himself, Ashin Wirathu explained the ”Muslim conspiracy” which, according to him, threatens to engulf Myanmar.
A man full of contradictions he seems consistent only in his criticism of and dislike for Islam. He denied at first that he mentions Muslims in his speeches at all, but later admitted that he does speak about them, but only because he wants to inform people of the reality.
At one point he even claimed that 100% of rapes in Myanmar are committed by Muslims, disregarding the fact that the army is known to use rape as a weapon in its wars against ethnic insurgents.
He traced his anti-Muslim activism to 1996, when a Muslim who had converted to Buddhism gave him a supposed ”secret message” circulated among Myanmar Muslims laying out their conspiracy to Islamise the country. The message included a plan to marry Buddhist women in order to convert them, and taking over the economy. Ashin Wirathu also warned that if Myanmar Buddhists do not take action, by 2100 the whole country will resemble the Mayu region of Rakhine state, an area mostly populated by Muslim Rohingya.
WHIRLWIND OF HATE: The destroyed Mingalar Thiri Muslim quarter in Meiktila.
Ashin Wirathu recognised that Buddhists have committed acts of violence, but refused to admit that his incendiary speeches have anything to do with them. He also refused to acknowledge that his discourses incite hatred towards Muslims, stating that he is just ”informing the public”.
He even claimed that, should people listen to him, no Buddhist would engage in violence, despite the fact that he gave one of his trademark speeches in Meiktila just four months before the recent violence. Eventually, as a solution to the ”Muslim problem”, he presented a simple formula: ”Buddhists can talk with Muslims, but not marry them; there can be friendship between them, but not trade.”
Ashin Wirathu’s words enjoy widespread publicity in the country and he is well supported by the Buddhist community, which reveres monks as the ultimate depositaries of wisdom. According to Win Htein, the NLD MP from Meiktila, Ashin Wirathu’s speeches are shown in the buses operated by companies owned by the military.
In a house in Meiktila, Aye Aye Aung, a 43-year-old Buddhist woman who owns three shops in the town, showed Spectrum a DVD of one of Ashin Wirathu’s speeches in which he warns against the Muslim conspiracy. She also showed us the weapon, a knife tied to a long iron bar, that her husband made the day the violence started to defend his family and property against possible Muslim attackers. She said that she was willing to let Muslims live in Meiktila, but they should be completely segregated from the rest of the population.
Ashin Wirathu claimed that 969 is a grass-roots movement without funding from powerful or wealthy people. Its publicity stickers are printed and distributed by ordinary people who act out of concern for their country, he said.
Despite his claims, several vendors at Mandalay market said the stickers are distributed by monks from Ashin Wirathu’s monastery.
Ashin Gambira, a former monk and leader of the 2007 ”Saffron Revolution” is one of Ashin Wirathu’s main critics. He said the monk is breaking the Buddhist precept of ”right speech”, which exhorts followers in part to avoid saying anything that could prove harmful to others. According to him, anti-Muslim sentiment was actively promoted by the army during its five decades of dictatorship and the hatred is now ”instilled in the minds of the people” to such a degree that it would not take much of an effort to ”revive it at any moment”.
It is a mystery who is behind the campaign and Ashin Wirathu, but many believe they enjoy the financial support of powerful people. There are also claims that they are following the plans of hard-line elements in the military who are unwilling to renounce their power and are posed to create unrest to reassert their position. The fact is that the authorities have allowed him to go around the country preaching his hatred at a particularly delicate time.
Ashin Pum Na Wontha is a 56-year-old Buddhist monk with a long history of political activism dating back to 1988. He now belongs to the Peace Cultivation Network, an organisation established to promote understanding between different faiths and communities.
In a recent interview conducted at his monastery in Yangon, he told Spectrum that Ashin Wirathu is a merely a puppet ”motivated by his vanity and thirst for fame”.
”Wirathu and the 969 movement receive financial support from the cronies,” he said, referring to a group of about 30 rich men linked to the military and the government who control the nation’s economy. Several Muslim businessmen have huge assets and, according to Ashin Pum Na Wontha, the cronies would like to get their hands on them.
He said he also believes the military is involved in the violence, as a way to destabilise the country and have the chance to present itself as the sole institution capable of re-establishing the law and order. According to his analysis, the military does not want to recover full power, as it had following the 1962 coup of Gen Ne Win, but to ”go back to 1958”.
In that year, Ne Win took power temporarily from U Nu, the first prime minister of Myanmar, and established a caretaker government that lasted 18 months. At that time, the army was able to present itself as the defender of democracy and stability in the country.
Inter-religious and communal tensions had long existed in Myanmar before Gen Ne Win took full power in 1962. Anti-Indian and anti-Muslim riots exploded in Yangon in 1930 and 1938 due to the resentment of the Myanmar people towards Indians who had entered the country with the arrival of the British colonisers. As today, the riots were often incited by Buddhist nationalist monks.
Ne Win and the military junta that replaced him played this religious ultra-nationalist and racist card for the entirety of their rules. Muslims and other non-Buddhists were barred from the upper echelons of the army and, almost immediately after Ne Win’s coup, he expelled hundreds of thousands of Indians from the country.
He also fostered a sense of a Myanmar identity strongly linked to ethnicity and religion, which has been the breeding ground for waves of anti-Muslim violence, like this most recent one, which threatens to spiral out of control and spread to large parts of the country.
LAST DEFENCE: Barricades manned by Muslim residents in Mingalar Taungyungnunt, the main Muslim quarter in Yangon. Following the violence in Meiktila, residents there have begun conducting patrols at night.
LUNCHTIME LULL: Most of those displaced by ethnic violence are in government-controlled camps, however others are in unofficial camps such as this one.