Seven years after Buddhist mobs burned down mosques and slaughtered dozens of children at an Islamic school, hundreds of Muslims remain displaced and they say the NLD government has done little to help heal or rebuild since.
By SWE LEI MON | FRONTIER
The heat is stifling and the sun blinding in Meiktila’s Chan Aye Tharyar ward, also known as the Muslim ward, in this town in southern Mandalay Region. Seven years ago, deadly anti-Muslim riots saw more than 700 homes burnt to ash, about 90 percent of them Muslim-owned. The area remains empty, without even trees to offer shade from the harsh Dry Zone sun.
“The plants haven’t grown well here since the burning,” said Haji Min Soe, a Chan Aye Tharyar resident.
On March 20, 2013, a dispute between the Muslim owner of a jeweller’s shop and a disgruntled Bamar Buddhist customer erupted into two days of sectarian violence that left 40 Muslims dead and ravaged the town. Among the dead were 32 schoolchildren and four teachers who were butchered at an Islamic boarding school by knife-wielding Buddhist nationalists, as well as a Buddhist monk. Thousands more Muslims were left homeless, many still without permanent housing.
Many Meiktila residents, once proud of their attractive, peaceful town, were ashamed of what happened. Although there is no concrete evidence to support the theory, some suspect the orgy of violence was intentionally orchestrated for political gain by out-of-towners, and members and supporters of the then-ruling Union for Solidarity and Development Party, the military’s political proxy.
“In 2013, everything was ruined by people using religion for political reasons,” said Daw Thida Aung, a Buddhist member of the Meiktila branch of the international interfaith group Religions for Peace. Before the violence, she told Frontier, Buddhists and Muslims had lived like family for years.
“We feel sorrow and shame for what happened to our Muslim brothers and sisters,” she said.
They say time heals, but the wounds in Meiktila still feel fresh. Dozens of Muslim families still languish in temporary government shelters, and Muslims say that sorrow and shame does not seem universal – especially within local government.
There are between 30,000 and 40,000 Muslims in Meiktila Township, according to U San Win Shein, chair of the town’s Islamic Religious Affairs Council and vice-chair of Htila Thukha Thar Maggi. Meiktila’s first local interfaith group, it was formed on May 4, 2013, shortly after the violence occurred.
Because the town is a stronghold of Buddhist nationalism, Muslims continue to face social and economic discrimination, he said.
“We still suffer emotional pain because of the discrimination, especially by administrative officials who will not allow us to reopen our mosques or return to our homes.”
U Maung Maung, the middle-aged secretary of IRAC, lost a close friend in the violence. He stood recently in front of the Thiri Mingalar Mosque, looking crestfallen. Under the blazing sun, glass from the mosque’s windows lay in shards in the dust and shrub below.
“Look!” he said, pointing behind him. “We don’t even have the right to clean and repair our mosques.”
The mosque is in the heart of the majority-Muslim Thiri Mingalar ward. It once accommodated 500 worshippers, Maung Maung said; now it is one of seven mosques that the government ordered shut after the riots, out of a total of 13. The Mingalar Zay Yone mosque, which was connected to the Islamic school where the children and teachers were slaughtered, was burnt down completely.
If Meiktila’s Muslim community is ever to fully recover from the trauma incurred seven years ago, the government must allow all of the town’s mosques to reopen, said San Win Shein.
“There are two mosques in Thiri Mingalar ward, but both are closed. When people go to the market there every day, they see them. That isn’t helping anyone heal,” he said. “Even before COVID-19, the government wouldn’t allow Muslims to pray at homes in groups, in addition to keeping us from worshipping in these mosques. This causes us great emotional pain.”
The Mingalar Zay Yone Islamic school – the only one in Meiktila – was torched along with the mosque. Seven years on the town still has no Muslim school for children to learn about their faith and their history.
Aside from regular classes, the school offered classes in Islam over the summer that attracted about 600 students, said Mawlawi Ibrahim, also known as U Tin Ko Oo, a teacher at the school and an Islamic scholar.
“Buddhists have summer schools at monasteries for children, but there are discriminatory restrictions on Muslims,” the 49-year-old told Frontier. “All we want is to be able to worship and to educate our children openly and freely.”
A first-hand witness to the Mingalar Zay Yone school massacre, he refuses to speak about the events that occurred on March 21, 2013.
“I don’t want to talk about it. It’s like reliving it all over again each time I think about it,” he said, his eyes beginning to fill with tears. “They killed my innocent pupils, my kind and loving brothers and teachers, for no reason. I will never forget and I will never forgive what happened until the day I die.”
Instead, he has turned his attention to the need for a new Islamic school. Children have been robbed of the opportunity to study their religion and culture for so long now, he said.
“We don’t only teach the children about Islam; we also teach them how to write Burmese as well as mathematics, to complement the government education system. We also teach the basic principles of life, such as how to help and respect each other,” Ibrahim said.
Ko Myint Oo, 32, a resident of Chan Aye Tharyar ward and a father of two, echoed this sentiment. He said he has nowhere to send his five-year-old daughter to learn about her religion.
“I teach her when I have free time at home, as much as I understand,” he said. “We want the children’s school to open as soon as possible.”
Dr Khin Soe, the Buddhist chairperson of Htila Thukha Thar Maggi, seconded the need to reopen the schools.
“I don’t know what difficulties town administrators have in reopening them, because there are no problems anymore [between Buddhists and Muslims],” he said. “I feel sorry that their rights have not yet been fully restored.”
In 2015, Khin Soe ran as a National League for Democracy candidate for the Meiktila-2 seat in the Mandalay Region assembly but was defeated by the USDP’s U Soe Than.
San Win Shein said Muslim leaders have asked the township General Administration Department several times for permission to build a school and to repair and reopen the closed mosques, but the GAD still will not allow it.
“They said they can’t provide [the mosques and schools] with security guards yet,” he said.
Frontier was unable to reach the General Administration Department in Meiktila for comment.
U Htein Min Khaing, a member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society activist group in Meiktila, called the GAD response baseless, since it had never protected the Muslim community in the first place.
He said that when violence erupted in March 2013, he and a group of former 88 Generation activists appealed to the GAD for help to prevent the slaughter but the local authorities did nothing.
“Don’t say you can’t protect us because you don’t have enough security guards,” he said. “If they don’t have enough security guards, all they have to do is ask the central government for more. What are they waiting for?”
Some residents told Frontier that they believe the authorities think that if they reopen mosques and Islamic schools, Muslims will use them as places to plot revenge for the events of 2013.
“They may believe that if the kalar gather in one place, we will plot to wipe them out like they did to us in 2013,” said Ko Win Min Tun, a young Muslim resident, using a term – widely considered derogatory – commonly applied to people of South Asian descent, particularly Muslims.
He believes GAD officials and Buddhist leaders influenced by senior monks from the now-banned ultranationalist Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its Burmese acronym of Ma Ba Tha, are the likely propagators of such misinformation.
“We have no such desire. If we had wanted revenge, as they think, blood would have already been shed by now,” he said.
‘I want to go home’
Although the government built more than 700 homes in 2014 and 2015 for those displaced by the violence – in part with money donated by Muslim groups from across the country – 300 people from 68 households remain in temporary shelters, according to San Win Shein.
“Those families are living temporarily in small houses arranged by the government after all the IDP camps were closed three years ago. They have ownership documents for their properties but the government has not allowed them to return home yet,” he said.
The 68 families, originally from the Kan Taw Min and Mingalar Zay Yone wards, are living in what are called Ta Sait Eain – single-family homes divided to accommodate two families – at the edge of Chan Aye Tharyar ward.
Daw Than Than Oo, 56, a former Kan Taw Min resident, said that three years ago, when displaced families from the camp asked to return to their original homes instead, GAD officials assured them the new accommodation would only be temporary.
“They said we would have to wait, but that was three years ago. They’ve never visited to discuss our desire to go home,” she said. “I want to go home. I don’t want to live here … Residents in the ward refer to us as ‘the guests’.”
Maung Maung from the Islamic council said he believed that GAD officials are unlikely to allow Muslim families to return due to the strong influence of Buddhist ultranationalists in the Mingalar Zay Yone and Kan Taw Min wards.
“Especially in Mingalar Zay Yone ward, most families are followers of Ma Ba Tha,” he said.
In Meiktila, Muslims’ difficulty with local government extends beyond the reopening of mosques and schools. Myint Oo said they avoid dealing with the bureaucracy at all costs because of the discriminatory treatment they receive from GAD officials.
“We are victims of violence. We are the ones who were inhumanely burned and attacked. Why do they treat us the way they do?” he said. “We have such trouble replacing our national registration cards, which were torched with our homes in 2013. We have gone many times to seek replacements and have had to wait for many months.”
Marriages between Buddhists and Muslims in Meiktila can also be extremely sensitive.
U Khin Nann, a former 88 Generation student and a Muslim, said he has resolved nearly 100 big and small disputes over the past seven years to prevent another outburst of violence, most of which involved dating and marriage.
“If the girl is Muslim, there is no problem, but if the girl is Buddhist, it is definitely a problem, and people from both sides in interfaith groups sprint over [to help resolve it],” he said. “If not, and tensions are not immediately defused, it could become a problem. There are people who do not want peace between the two communities.”
Even in traffic accidents, said Maung Maung, Muslims must exercise patience and self-restraint to avoid problems.
“Even if we are in the right,” he said, “we have to remain silent.”
That sentiment, regarding traffic incidents particularly, was echoed throughout the Muslim community. Locals say it is a near-daily threat.
Myint Oo’s wife, Ma Cho Mar Lwin, 30, said she is seized by anxiety when rumours of rising tensions spread in town, and fears for her children’s safety.
“I do not want to experience again what happened in 2013,” she said. “We ran into the forest nearby then without even caring if there were snakes. I lived in a camp for a year and a half. I don’t want my children to have to do the same.”
The politics of religion
Among political activists and Muslim community members it is widely believed that the USDP government quietly encouraged Ma Ba Tha to foment the anti-Muslim riots in 2013. The bloodshed in Meiktila was followed by at least six incidents of communal violence throughout the country, including in Lashio in northern Shan State in May 2013 and in Thandwe in southern Rakhine State in September and October of that year.
88 Generation activist Htein Min Khaing claimed it was the USDP’s response to the NLD’s winning of 43 out of the 44 seats it contested in by-elections in 2012, adding that the USDP had allowed the NLD to contest the seats only because of pressure from the international community.
“[The USDP] did not think it would lose so many seats. When the NLD won in such a landslide, it went into crisis mode,” he said.
There is no evidence to support this allegation, and representatives from the USDP government denied such allegations at the time. The morning following the violence, president’s office spokesperson U Ye Htut told The New Humanitarian that 13 people had already been arrested. “We take this very seriously and will hold accountable those responsible,” he said.
However, the violence is thought to have helped the USDP in the 2015 election, when it won a clean sweep of seats in Meiktila and several surrounding townships.
Among the USDP’s winners in 2015 was former Tatmadaw colonel U Aung Kyaw Moe (Meiktila-2, Mandalay Region Hluttaw), who in 2013 was the regional government’s military-appointed Minister of Security and Border Affairs. He has been accused of failing to deploy enough security forces to quell the violence that year.
“He had the power to issue orders to open fire on the terrorists, but he didn’t,” said Htein Min Khaing. “I saw the terrorists cut with knives and kill Muslim students with my own eyes, while police guards stood by and watched.”
Aung Kyaw Moe is seeking re-election this year.
Frontier was unable to reach him or a USDP spokesperson for comment.
Though the NLD failed to win any seats in Meiktila in 2015, it won overwhelmingly at all six polling stations in the town’s Muslim-majority wards.
But that alternative also seems bleak to many. Although the community has voted NLD in the past, San Win Shein said, most are unhappy with the ruling party, and few are interested in voting on November 8.
“The NLD government has not opened our mosques or done anything for the Muslim community in the past five years, so some are disappointed and have no intention of voting,” he said, but was quick to point out that this sentiment is not universal.
“Some understand the difficulties the NLD has faced in sharing power with the military under the 2008 Constituiton, and they still support the party,” he added.
Among them is Maung Maung. He is urging his Muslim brothers and sisters to vote red again.
“Some say voting does not change anything and that we’ll suffer and have to work for ourselves no matter what party forms the government. But working in peace [with the NLD] is not the same as working in fear [under the USDP],” he said.
U Win Min Tun, 30, is among those Maung Maung hopes to win over. Win Min Tun is considering not voting at all because of his disappointment with both parties.
“We hoped the [NLD] government would stand up for us, but things haven’t gone as expected, and it hurts,” he said. “It seems our expectations were in vain and so we just shouldn’t expect anything [from any government].
Than Than Oo, still stuck in her temporary home, agreed.
“I don’t care if anyone says we’re uneducated – I don’t want to vote,” she said. “We cannot rely on the government. We have nothing to rely on but Allah”.