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
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism