'They shouted to come out and be killed'

By Peter Popham

Anti-Muslim violence in Burma has left at least 43 dead and thousands homeless.

Myanmar's President Thein Sein. Photo / AP
Myanmar's President Thein Sein. Photo / AP

In the 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 Meiktila. Armed with sticks and iron bars they then threatened 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, 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 byelection 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 March 20, 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.

When the army stamped out the violence in Meiktila, 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. 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.

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 because of the 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.

A movement known as 969, urging Buddhists to shun Muslim shops and businesses, has gained momentum. 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.

The speed of Thein Sein's reforms is said to have left some of his old army colleagues aghast. Byelections a year ago brought 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 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".

But the level of devastation in Meiktila has caused many to question his ability to protect victims such as Ma Khin Aye.

A history of violence

Religious tensions

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.

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

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."

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

Violence leaves more than 180 Rohingya Muslims dead and more than 100,000 homeless.

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

- Independent

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