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Fear stalks Muslims in Myanmar

Fear stalks Muslims in Myanmar

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Text: Carlos Sardina Galache. Pictures: Vincenzo Floramo. The Bangkok Post. Published: 14/04/2013
Text: Carlos Sardina Galache. Pictures: Vincenzo Floramo. The Bangkok Post. Published: 14/04/2013

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Published by: Carlos Sardiña Galache on May 05, 2013
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COVER STORY 
SUNDAY,APRIL14,2013
Bangkok Post
FearstalksMuslimsinMyanmar
EyewitnessestoamassacreatanIslamicschoolsaitwascarriedoutbyBuddhists,andmanycontenditstemsfromacoordinatedeffortwithtiestothetop
StorybyCarlosSardiaGalache 
and
PhotosbyVincenzoFloramo
BADGEOFHATE:969stickersonsaleinYangon.
M
on Hnin, a 29-year-oldMuslimwomanfromMei-ktila,incentralMyanmar,spent the night of March20withherdaughterandmother-in-law hiding interror in the bushes on the fringes of herneighbourhood. A wave of murderous anti-Muslim riotsledbyBuddhistextremistshadexplodedearlierthatdayinthedustytownwithapopulationof 100,000 people, located 130km north of the capital, Nay Pyi Taw. Like the houses of many other Muslims in the town, the onebelonging to Mon Hnin, whose name hasbeenchangedforsecurityreasons,hadbeendestroyedbyaBuddhistmobintheMingalarZay Yone quarter and she and her relativeshad to take refuge in the first place they could find.Thenextday,shewitnessedsomethingfar worse than the destruction of her property,as she told
Spectrum
at a non-governmentalrefugee camp near Meitktila where she now liveswithabout3,400otherMuslimrefugees.The bushes where Mon Hnin, her daughterandhermother-inlawhadhiddenthepreviousnight are not far from a local
madrasa
— anIslamic school — where one of the worstepisodesoftheviolencetookplace.According toseveraleyewitnesses,thatmorningaBud-dhistmobattackedtheschoolkillingatleast30 students and four teachers.MonHninsaidshesawabout30policemenarrivingintrucksabout8am.Fromhervantagepoint,shesawhowthestudentsandteachersofthemadrasagaveuptopolicetheweaponsthey had improvised to defend themselves.Sheclaimedthatagroupofthemwasofferedthe chance to be evacuated from the area inpolice trucks, but they were attacked by themob before reaching the vehicles.Oneofthoseshesawbeingkilledwasherhusband, a halal butcher who was stabbedto death. The policemen in the area didnothing to stop the carnage. Shortly after- wards,MonHnin,herdaughterandmother-in-law were given shelter in the house of aBuddhist neighbour.FromMarch20-22,thisdustygarrisoncity  wasengulfedbytheworstcommunalviolenceinMyanmarsincetheanti-Muslimpogromsthat took place in Rakhine state in June andOctober of last year.The trigger of the violence was a brawlbetween the Muslim owners of a gold shopand two Buddhists who tried to sell a goldhaircliponthemorningofMarch20.Severaldifferent, and often contradictory, accountshaveemergedoftheincident,butthereisnodoubt that a Buddhist mob responded by hurling stones at the shop and ended up wrecking the building.Thateveningtheriotsbecamedeadlywhenabout 5.30pm a monk was attacked by fourMuslim men who torched him alive. Themonk died in hospital that same evening.Just a few hours later the city was on fire when groups of Buddhists unleashed theirfury on Muslims and their properties underthe gaze of security forces, who for two days watched the violence without taking any action.Manywitnesseshaveconfirmedthefailureof the police to prevent the violence. One of themisWinHtein,thelocalMPoftheNationalLeague for Democracy (NLD), the party of  AungSanSuuKyi.WinHtein,aformerarmy officerwhospent20yearsinjailforhispoliticalactivities and used to organise security for‘‘theLady’’afterherreleasefromhousearrestonNovember2010,told
Spectrum
intheram-shackle local NLD office that he witnessedthe carnage in front of the madrasa.‘‘Isawwithmyowneyestwopeoplealreaddead 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 hecalledthechiefministerofMandalayDivision,Gen Ye Myint, and told him what was hap-pening.‘‘Hesaidhe’dalreadygivenorderstothe police to take action, but there was noaction at all,’’ Win Htein said.Ittookafurtherdaybeforethearmysteppedin and restored some order in the city. By then, at least 42 people had been killed andmore than 60 were injured. Those are theofficial estimates, but the real figures arelikelyto beconsiderably higher,considering thatatleast30peoplediedinasingleincidentat the madrasa.Onelocalreporterwhowitnessedthecar-nage, told
Spectrum
that she arrived at thesceneat5pmandsawapileofseveraldozencorpsesjustmetresfromthemadrasa.Whenshe went back four hours later, the pile hadbeen set on fire.On March 21, the young reporter saw andfilmed a group of Buddhists slit the throat of aMuslimman,beforedousinghimwithpetrolandsettinghimonfire.Shecontinuedrecord-
 
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Bangkok Post
SUNDAY, APRIL 14, 2013
9
FOMENTINGDISCONTENT:AshinWirathu,famousforhisinflammatoryanti-Muslimspeeches,attheMaseyeinmonasteryinMandalay.
 
KILLINGFIELDS:Right,themadrasawheremorethan40MuslimswerekilledonMarch21.
ingdespitebeingtoldtostop,buteventually had to flee the scene when six or seven Bud-dhist men chased her, hitting her on theback.Thereportersaidthatduringthetimeshe was in Meiktila, from March 20-22, she saw only Buddhists carrying weapons and theviolence was fundamentally one-sided, withthe Muslims always on the receiving end. Win Htein said the attacks were spontan-eous and perpetrated by Buddhist residentsof the city, but others witnesses claimed theattackerswereunknowntothemandseemedto be following a well coordinated plan.Three weeks after the riots, the Muslimquarters of Meiktila are large wastelands of destroyedbuildingsandcharredcars,resem-blingtheaftermathofawarornaturaldisaster,andwherethepoorestinhabitantsofthecitscavenge for scrap to sell. More than 18,000residents, most of them Muslims, have beendisplaced by the violence and most of themare now living in government-controlledcamps.Thecampsareoff-limitstojournalists,but there are also unofficial camps like theone where Mon Hnin lives.The government has announced plans torebuild the destroyed houses within twomonths, but few believe in its ability or evenitswillingnesstodoso.ManyMuslimrefugeesfeartheirsituationmightbecomepermanent,ashappenedtotheMuslimRohingyainRak-hine state, in western Myanmar. Unlike theRohingya, however, the Muslims of centralMyanmarareofficiallyrecognisedascitizensof the country.
THEVIOLENCESPREADS
 AfterMeiktila,theanti-Muslimattacksspreadto other parts of central Myanmar, getting dangerously close to the the nation’s largestcity, Yangon. In the Bago region, the patternofviolenceagainstMuslimpeopleandprop-erty was repeated in no less than 14 villages.Morethan80refugeesfromMinhla,atown with a population of about 100,000, are now living in a mosque in Yangon after fleeing a wave of attacks on March 27.KoMaungWin(nothisrealname),ateacheratthelocalmosquerecountedhowamobof Buddhist extremists attacked the mosqueshortly after afternoon prayer. Nobody waskilled or injured during the attacks.He and other refugees from Minhla told
Spectrum
that the attacks came out of theblue, without any prior threat or warning.They said, however, that relations betweenthe two communities had steadily souredafter a monk visited the city at the end of FebruaryandgaveaspeechtellingBuddhiststo shun Muslim people and their shops. A  woman who owned a grocery store in themarket,andisnowoneoftherefugeesinthemosque, said she lost many Buddhist cus-tomers after thespeech. Nevertheless, whenthe attacks started she was given refuge inthe home of a Buddhist neighbour.The violence has not yet reached Yangon,but in some of its Muslim neighbourhoodsthereisanalmostpalpabletension,particularly at night. Since the attacks in Meiktila, theresidents of Mingalar Taungyungnunt, themain Muslim quarter of the former capital,have set up barricades and conduct nightly street patrols.Muslim communities are abuzz withrumours,especiallyafterthefireinanIslamicschoolinYangonthatclaimedthelivesof13children in the early hours of April 2. Few people believe the official line that the fire was accidental. The haste of the authoritiesto say it was, and their inability to find any eyewitness accounts further contributed topeople’s suspicions.
Neighboursinterviewedrecentlyinthequar-ter said that, under the cloak of dark, peopleroam the streets in cars shouting threats andinsults. Many of them are afraid that during the annual Songkran-like water festival theremightbeanattacksimilartothoseinMeiktilaand Bago. Many men sleep only a few hoursanight,astheyhavetoworkatdayandpatrolthe streets in the evening. Every entrance tothe neighbourhood from the main streets isblocked with makeshift barricades mannedby local men.
 All of the men interviewed by 
Spectrum
 were keen to emphasise that their relations withanoverwhelmingmajorityofBuddhistshavealwaysbeenandcontinuetobepeacefulandfriendly.Theyputtheblameonill-definedgroups of ‘‘Buddhist terrorists’’.LikemanyotherMuslimsaroundthecoun-try,theresidentsofMingalarTaungyungnuntfeel unprotected and abandoned by localauthoritiesandthecentralgovernment.During twovisitstothequarteratnight,onlyaminimalpolice force could be seen on the streets.‘‘Wedon’tknowwhothesepeopleare,but we are not afraid. If they attack us, we willfight back,’’ said a young man in one of thebarricades.
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