Massacre in Meiktila: That was my friend

More deaths are likely in Burma in the coming weeks as anti-Muslim violence intensifies.

Following recent attacks in central Myanmar against Muslims, the displaced have been fleeing to the central city of Mandalay. Buildings were burnt down and the "official" death toll stood at 32, as angry mobs roamed the streets. The reality of events is very different from what we have heard on our TV screens. Burmese state media is not the most reliable of sources and very few independent or Western journalists have reported directly from the ground.

The displaced are scattered across the city, accommodated by fellow Muslims and are still very scared to return to their homes in Meiktila, a hundred miles away.

I traversed through side streets to the site of one building housing the displaced. Young men stood guard, looking wary and suspect. After a long discussion we were allowed in to interview some of the refugees, they asked for their faces to be blurred out on camera. The metal gates to the building were unlocked and we were allowed in.

Hafiz, a seventeen-year-old student, had been in school at the time when the violence began. His teacher told him to run,
“we ran, we saw the younger children falling over, the older kids had to help them,” he said, recalling his account. “We hid, and then moved from place to place until we were rescued and brought here. I’m not sure where some of my other friends are.”

He looked around to his classmates in the small open space opposite a mosque in the mainly Muslim district of Mandalay. I showed him some pictures from a local journalist; two of them were of dead teenagers. He put his hand up to the camera touching the screen. "That’s my friend,” he said. We showed him another and he struggles to speak: “And this one, those are Osama and Karimullah,” he paused; his friends surrounded the camera and inspected the pictures of bodies on the ground, in unnatural poses.

One body, Osama’s, has a massive gash to the back of the neck, which looks like it was caused by a machete. The other boy had a massive laceration in a similar place, both bodies had been there for three days before a local journalist, Hein Aung, took the pictures. They are too graphic to print. The class mates consoled each other, two friends lost. The pictures confirm their fears, but there are still friends unaccounted for, but we have no more pictures that can be identified, the rest are of burnt corpses. Not that that was a comfort to these young men, to anyone. Nearby, one hundred and five year old Kairunbi, laid on the floor, exhausted. Her seventy-one year-old daughter watched over her.

“We had to use a stretcher to get her here,” she told me. “We will go back when it is safe to do so,” she added. “We could be here for a while.”

Muslims have long been an oppressed minority in Myanmar. Last year’s massacre of the Rohingya Muslims caused outrage in the Muslim world but the Western media gave it little attention. The Rohingya are not recognised as Burmese citizens. The darling of the West Aung San Suukyi, a former political prisoner, democracy advocate, and current member of the Burmese Parliament, remained silent when asked about the Rohingya, an action further cementing their fate, as the leader of democracy in Burma refrained to speak out for their freedom.

This time, the Muslims are Burmese citizens, not Rohingya, but this did not stop them from being attacked. Every person interviewed said that the police stood by and did nothing whilst they were being attacked. Many here believe that this was pre-planned and that the official story, that it began with a dispute in a gold shop, is just a cover for violence against Muslims. The extremist Buddhist monk, Wirathu, had only given one of his sermons ten days before the violence. His group, 969, is infamous for their extreme views and protests against Muslims who they call "invaders" and "Kalar" - a racist term used to describe Muslims. He is known in the country for his anti-Muslim stance, he has even published a book called "From the jaws of a wolf”, which tells a story of a Buddhist woman married to an abusive Muslim man.

We continued throughout Mandalay, interviewing person after person displaced by the riots. But this violence was different from that in the Arakan state last year, although the anti-Muslim sentiment was the same. This time, local Buddhists and student groups from nearby Mandalay city launched a rescue operation saving hundreds of lives. The local Buddhists from Mandalay city, who have lived side by side with Muslims for centuries, were not prepared to have their neighbours slaughtered.

Myint Myint, who was saved by a Buddhist monk, said she blames the Buddhists in Meiktila, not the ones in Mandalay. Her nephew, Farooq, aged just fourteen, saw people beaten to death and then burnt. His voice crackled recalling the events, he and others hid in some houses and looked on as the slaughter took place. None of the above interviewed wanted their face on camera; they fear reprisals from extremist Buddhists if they are found out to have spoken to a foreign journalist.

Khin Htay Yee, was not afraid, though. She broke down in tears as she recalled how her Buddhist factory manager sheltered them in the factory as the slaughter took place outside. The mob outside threatened the manager that if he did not let the women out that they would break in and rape every last woman. She managed to make a phone call to Mandalay where some Buddhist monks had already left to rescue Muslims from the onslaught of the enraged mob.

The violence took place over three days and only stopped once the army came in and restored order to the streets. The majority of the displaced are still being kept in a sports stadium in Meiktila, guarded by the military.

Muslims in Burma are now afraid that the violence will spread even further and there is even a strong indication, due to protests, leaflets and military movement that a third massacre against the Rohingya Muslims in Arakan is planned for the coming days. The language of propaganda is reminiscent of that in the Balkans before the Bosnian genocide, Muslims are accused of invading, of waging jihad, of acts of violence against Buddhists, but many here believe that the military is behind the increase in violence, something Human Rights Watch pointed out in their report on the violence in Arakan last year accusing the military of complicity in the massacre. The Burmese military junta ruled Burma until recent political reforms, which has opened up the country somewhat to the West.

A Muslim in Yangon told me “the military want to assert their power, and want to prove they are the ones that can restore order, they are using us to prove their point.”

If this is the case, then we will see more deaths in the coming week.

This article first appeared on Assed Baig's blog, and is crossposted here with his permission.

Riot control police in Burma. Photograph: Getty Images
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war