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
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Locals without borders: governments are using diasporas to shape the migration crisis

Governments of countries key to the migration crisis are tapping diaspora influence more than ever before.

Last month, on 21 June, thousands of Eritreans descended on Geneva and marched across the city, finally stopping at the Place des Nations in front of the UN. The demonstrators had come from across Europe: Italy, Germany, London, and a young man who looked blankly at my French and English questions before exclaiming “Svenska!” (“Swedish!”).

They were here to denounce a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council condemning widespread violations of basic rights in Eritrea. According to the protesters, the report was based on shoddy research and is biased and politically-motivated: “Stop regime change agendas!” said one banner.

Two days later, a similarly sized group of Eritreans marched in the same direction, for the opposite reason. This contingent, 10,000-strong according to the organisers, wanted to show their backing for the report, which highlights many of the problems that led them to leave the Horn of Africa in the first place. Forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity, all pinpointed by the UN inquiry, have driven a mass exodus to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2015 alone, 47,025 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean to request asylum in Europe.

Two things stood out. First was the sharp polarisation of the Eritrean diaspora community in Europe, which muddies the waters for outsiders trying to make sense of the situation: how can one side say everything is fine while the other claims massive abuses of rights?

Second was the sheer engagement of this diaspora, some of whom may never have set foot in Eritrea. They had come from across Europe, with or without the help of funding, to stand on a rainy square and fight for the narrative of their nation.

As an Irishman abroad, would I have the commitment to jump on a plane for a political protest with no certain outcome? I probably wouldn’t, but then again my country is not just 25 years old and still struggling to define itself on the international stage.

Individual stakes are also much higher for people like Abraham, an Eritrean in Switzerland who told me how he was forced into the army for seven years before managing to escape via Sudan two years ago. With two children still in Asmara, he has significant skin in the game.

As for the naysayers, they are also under certain pressure. Some reports suggest that the government in Asmara exercises extensive power in certain diaspora circles, threatening to cancel the citizenship of those who denounce the regime or refuse to pay 2 per cent income tax each year.

Ultimately, such a situation can only lead to a committed kind of polarisation where pro-government supporters need to publicly demonstrate their backing, and the anti-government kind have nothing left to lose.

But on a more benign level, the idea of states systematically harnessing the power of the diaspora for domestic gains has also been growing elsewhere – including in Ireland. Historically a nation of emigrants, Ireland has seen its diaspora swell even further following the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad.

In an age of networks and soft power, this represents a sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and well-off one to boot. The government has clearly recognized this. In 2009, the first Global Irish Economic Forum was held to tap into the business know-how of expats, and has since taken place biannually.

More importantly, two years ago the first Minister for the Diaspora was appointed, tasked with taking overall charge of engagement efforts: no longer simply cultural ambassadors operating Irish bars abroad, emigrants are economic and political seeds to be cultivated. A referendum is planned next year on whether to grant them the right to vote from abroad in presidential elections.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the 3m-strong Turkish population has attracted renewed interest from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. According to a 2014 paper by think tank SWP, Ankara now explicitly designates these Turks abroad as a “diaspora” rather than a scattered group, and adopts clear public diplomacy efforts, channelled through cultural centres, to tap their influence.

This has sometimes rankled in Berlin: although Ankara’s diaspora policy encourages citizens to learn German and integrate into German society, the underlying motivation is one of Turkish self-interest rather than benign assimilation. In a battle for the front-foot, German immigration policy clashes with Turkish emigration policy.

Intra-EU movements, largely unhampered by visa questions, have also become substantial enough to warrant attention. For example, hit hard by the economic downturn and austerity measures, many educated Spaniards and Portuguese have flocked to Northern European cities to seek employment.

London, a melting pot of diasporas from all over the world, is reportedly home to more French people than Bordeaux: together they would make up the sixth largest city in France. As countries continue to rebuild following the financial crisis, forging a connection to the skills and political power of such emigrants is a policy imperative.

And if no other EU country, aside from Ireland, has introduced a dedicated minister for this, the growing economic potentials may spur them to do so.

Diasporas have been around for millennia. Why are governments getting so interested now? And what does it mean for the future of citizenship, nationality, and identity?

Technology is one obvious game-changer. Diasporas not only have more options to keep in touch with their home country, but with so much of daily life now happening on virtual platforms, they also have less reason to integrate in their host society.

It is now almost feasible to ignore the surrounding communities and live quite comfortably in a bubble of media and connections from back home. This then works both ways, with governments increasingly willing to use such communications to maintain links. The “imagined spaces” of nations are morphing into “virtual spaces”, with unpredictable consequences for traditional models of integration.

Marco Funk, a researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says that the growing ease of mobility compounds the idea of “people moving from one country to another and staying there” as simply out-of-date.

The coming years, he says, will be marked by patterns of “circular migration”, where citizens hop from one country to another as whim and economic opportunity arise. Governments, especially in an increasingly stagnant Europe, will likely try to beef up links with this mobile generation, especially since it is often pulled from the more educated classes.

Fearing a “brain drain”, yet unable to keep the talent at home, they may foster a more fluid system of “brain exchange”: the diaspora as a mobile resource rather than physical loss.

Of course, none of this will be straightforward, especially at a time when a major fault-line around the world is the future of globalisation and migration. An uptick in nationalist tendencies may mean that diasporas will find themselves (once again) unwilling pawns on a political chessboard, protected or manipulated by governments back home while scapegoated by segments of their host societies.

But one thing is sure: even as walls are rebuilt, diasporas will not disappear, and governments are recognising their power. All politics may remain local, but the local now knows no bounds.