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One year after a wave of violence between the Buddhist and Muslim communities ravaged Meikhtila in central Burma, many wounds have still not healed. Dozens were killed, most of them Muslims, and many houses were burnt in late March 2013 after an apparently banal discussion in a gold shop unleashed an orgy of brutality that lasted for three days.
Now tensions between both communities have eased somewhat but are still present, as shown by the profusion in many shops of 969 stickers, the ultranationalist Buddhist movement with a neatly Islamophobic message. And 8,000 people, out of 10,000 in the aftermath of the violence, the majority Muslims, remain in five camps for internal displaced persons (IDPs), with some starting to lose any hope of going back to their homes again.
One of the places where some Muslim IDPs have been living during the last year is Yin Taw, an unofficial camp occupying the grounds of an Islamic school around 20 km from Meikhtila. According to the head of the camp, a businessman who prefers to withhold his name, they cannot attend to the needs of all the IDPs as the funding from donors is drying up.
Of the 2,500 people who took refuge in the camp after the violence, approximately 1,100 remain there, around 1,000 have returned to their houses, and the rest have moved to other places to look for work. This is the case of Ma Nyein, a woman who witnessed the killing of her husband in a madrassa where other 31 Muslims were slaughtered by a mob of Buddhist extremists. This reporter interviewed her one year ago in the same camp, but now she is living in Qatar working in a textile factory. According to the camp leader: “She couldn’t stand the sadness of living here and had to move away. She now sends money home to her family.”
Ma Nyein is not the only IDP traumatized by the violence. While many commute back to Meikhtila to work every day, some of them cannot bring themselves to go back to their daily lives, and languish in the camp without working. Thant Oo, a 50-year-old man who used to work as a bus conductor, lost a son in the massacre at the madrassa, and has not worked since. “I only go to Meikhtila to visit my daughter,” he said. “It makes me really sad to go there because I can’t help but think of my son.”
In practical terms too, most of the IDPs who remain in the camps, both Muslims and Buddhists, cannot go back to their houses because they have not been rebuilt yet. But there are also Muslims who are unable to go back home even though their houses were spared by the destruction. The reason is that the local authorities will not give them permission to go back to Buddhist-majority quarters because they claim that their presence could exacerbate tensions between the communities.
The house belonging to War War, 42, a mother of four, is still standing in the Yan Myo Aung quarter in downtown Meiktila. Her husband goes to the town every day to work, but she and her family cannot go back because the chairman of the quarter would not grant them permission. “We have been asking him for months if we can go home, but he says that the Buddhist people there don’t want us to return. He said there had been an incident involving another Muslim family. But we have visited the old quarter and our neighbors have told us that they want us to come back.”
The chairman of the quarter is a 60-year-old Buddhist called U Chaw. He said that in the area under his jurisdiction, where Buddhists are the majority, some 30 houses were destroyed, 23 of them owned by Muslims, and that there have not been any reconstruction so far. “Muslims cannot come back because this is a Buddhist-majority neighbourhood,” he said. “But they will be allowed back when everything has been rebuilt.”
U Chaw claims that he is following both orders from above and the requests of the Buddhist population of his quarter in denying Muslim families the opportunity to return home. Another underlying reason, he said, was because a local imam was discovered entering his home with 30 gallons of petrol and a knife. “People are afraid that returning Muslims will do something,” said U Chaw. “It will take a long time to rebuild trust between the two communities.”
Kyaw Myaing, a neighbour of the imam in question, said, “We never had any problem with that man before the violence. He was respected and everybody got along well with him.”“They started to set fire to Muslim homes and I begged them not to burn mine, because I am very poor, but one of them told me: ‘Don’t worry, the government will rebuild your house’. And they went ahead and burned it down anyway.”
Like all the other residents interviewed in Yan Myo Aung quarter, Kyaw Myaing said he did not place the blame on their Muslim neighbors for last year’s violence. He said it is the local authorities who do not wish to see the Muslims returning. Nonetheless, he concedes “there might be trouble” if Muslims return to the quarter. Neither he nor other Buddhist residents in Meiktila would elaborate on what kind of trouble they envisaged, however a general consensus seemed to indicate that although they did not bear any strong hatred or distrust of their former neighbours, most residents were afraid of the consequences if the Muslim families returned.
Meanwhile, some Buddhist IDPs are also losing hope of going back to their homes again. The only official Buddhist shelter is Inn Gone camp, which hosts 457 IDPs. The population of this camp has actually increased since it was opened one year ago as there have been eight births during this period.
The chief of the camp is Poe That, a father of three who used to run a grocery store before the violence. “I was very depressed after the riots, so much so that I couldn’t work,” he said. “I ended up as head of the camp, but it’s really difficult because people are very difficult to control.”
Phoe That used to live in a Muslim-majority neighborhood, and claims that he always had good relations with his neighbors and still gets along well with them whenever he visits his old quarter. He said he lost his house on 22 March last year when a group of people he had never seen before set fire to homes in the neighbourhood. “They were very brutal, and I think they had been taking drugs or something. I was too worried about defending my house to know for sure whether they were Muslims or Buddhists, but I think they were Buddhists,” he said. “They started to set fire to Muslim homes and I begged them not to burn mine, because I am very poor, but one of them told me: ‘Don’t worry, the government will rebuild your house’. And they went ahead and burned it down anyway.”
Apart from his house and the shop he used to run, Phoe That said he owned another four houses that he wanted to hand down to his children, but all of them were destroyed and none has been rebuilt yet. “It saddens me that I have no houses to offer my children now. If the authorities could rebuild just three houses, that would be enough for me,” he said.
One year on, many houses remain to be rebuilt in Meiktila. But it was not only homes; many people also lost their livelihoods. Also destroyed was the spirit of peaceful coexistence between the Muslim and Buddhist communities. The local authorities don’t seem to be making much of an effort to rebuild any of these things.
Some of the names in this story have been changed for security reasons.
Carlos Sardiña Galache is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.