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
Steve Bannon with Donald Trump. Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump was Steve Bannon's creation. What happens now he's gone?

Steve Bannon championed the "economic nationalism" agenda which drove Trump's election win and the early days of his presidency.

Steve Bannon, perhaps more than any single person other than the man himself, is the reason Donald Trump is President of the United States.

Bannon is a choleric figure who once described himself as a “Leninist” who wanted to “destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down”. It must be said that he has come pretty close to doing so. He served as chief architect of Trump's presidential campaign from the Republican national convention until election day, and then as the senior strategist in the Trump White House, a position from which he has just been ousted.

Why have I heard the name recently? It's very familiar, but in a weird context.

Well, until Friday he was the senior adviser to the president and one of the most powerful people in America.

No, that wasn't it. Something about... this doesn't sound right, but something about sucking his own...

...yeah. That was a quote from a gloriously unhinged phone call between Ryan Lizza, a reporter for the New Yorker magazine, and Anthony Scaramucci, who spent a week as White House Communications Director before being ignominiously canned, in part for giving this quote.

What he said exactly was: “I'm not Steve Bannon, I'm not trying to suck my own cock.”

Can Bannon actually do that?

According to rock and roll legend, Marilyn Manson had two of his own ribs surgically removed in order to autofellate; Bannon, by comparison, looks like he had two dozen ribs for breakfast already. The man is a crepuscular Hutt who looks like he'd rather smother his own firstborn than even enter a yoga studio. I would bet good money that he cannot.

I think Scaramucci meant it figuratively.

So apart from that, why is this such big news?

Bannon was responsible for Trump's victory, and for shaping his early presidency. He came on board at a key moment in the presidential race, after the debacle of the Republican convention, and was campaign CEO through to election day. He helped shape the Trump campaign into the white supremacist dog-whistle-fest that it became. The idea that, far from building coalitions, it was possible to run a campaign that would play directly to the core white male base was, in part, Bannon's particular inspiration.

As the former chief of the far-right news site Breitbart, Bannon was one of the key figures in the online radicalisation of the cluster of more-or-less white supremacist Hentai-fetishists who have come to be known as the “alt-right”. He is the thread that links Gamergate, the misogynistic troll campaign against female influence in video game production and industry news coverage, to what became Trump's rabid online following of lonely, racist white guys. The masses who became keyboard-warriors for Trump from their parents' basement, hanging out on The_Donald subreddit and 4chan's /pol/ board, were an army built by Bannon and Breitbart.

He popularised “economic nationalism”, a position based on the the twistedly brilliant insight that while making race the naked focus of the campaign would run up too hard against American political taboos, you could successfully use “trade” and “immigration” as effective proxies.

From Bannon also in part came the idea that Trump ought to run as much against the “mainstream media” as against his nominal opponent, Hillary Clinton. He brought his anarchic, burn-it-all-down ideology across from Breitbart – the website which Bannon once bragged about having made “the platform for the alt-right” – almost wholesale.

Most likely, Bannon is the reason it took Trump so long to condemn the neo-Nazis marching in support of his presidency in Charlottesville last weekend, and was responsible for the near-fatal cognitive dissonance the president visibly struggled with when he did so.

Why is Bannon out?

The Trump White House has been riven with divisions and factional warfare from the very beginning. In particular, Bannon, whose ex-wife once claimed that he said that he didn't want his children “going to school with Jews” (he denies this), butted heads with Trump's Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner and his faction of Wall Street-friendly pinstripe-drones and sundry moderate Republican clingers.

Bannon was the figurehead and leader of the nationalist, alt-right faction surrounding the president, while Kushner was the figurehead for the Wall Street moderates in his administration. In the early days of the administration Bannon seemed set for victory over the Kushnerites – he had installed himself on the National Security Council and had the president's ear. Trump's early moves – the travel-ban, leaving NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – all had Bannon's fingerprints all over them.

Early on in the administration Bannon also clashed with Trump's first chief of staff, former Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus. A lifelong adenoidal Republican functionary, the result of a secret government experiment to breed a human being entirely without a spine, Priebus reportedly made peace with Bannon despite constant schoolyard bullying from most of the president's team, and the two formed an unlikely alliance within the White House.

But the president is nothing if not mercurial in his affections, and he appeared to sour on both Priebus and Bannon in later months, especially after Bannon was featured on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Great Manipulator”, which is said to have irritated the thin-skinned president.

In July, in a chaotic shake-up of his White House staff, Trump replaced Priebus with a retired Marine Corps general, John Kelly, and tasked him with bringing a semblance of militaristic order to his administration. Once Priebus was gone, Bannon became the target of Kelly's next purge, especially as events in Charlottesville played out.

What does this mean for Trump's agenda?

In the first instance, Trump and his supporters will hope that some of the hailstorm of criticism he's been receiving following his apparent endorsement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia a week ago will abate following Bannon's exit.

The bat-shit crazy impromptu press conference the president gave on Tuesday was illuminating in that it showed the faultines in Trump's advice, between advisers telling him to condemn the Nazis and others pushing the Bannonite view that the “alt-left” were equally at fault and that there was “blame on both sides”.

This is the way Trump operates. Again and again, he floats half-baked ideas to see what will stick. After Charlottesville, he tried things Bannon's way – the Breitbart chief has long courted the nationalist right – but, unluckily for Bannon, the narcissistic president found that the ratings and reviews for that approach were poor.

As far as Trump's agenda is concerned, it seems unlikely that Bannon's departure will change the president's behaviour much at this point. The damage is, in a way, done; the course Bannon helped Trump chart is now set, and whether or not Bannon has his hand directly on the tiller, his ideological influence will still be felt in everything Trump does, because more than anyone else Trump was a Steve Bannon creation.

What about the balance of power in the White House?

Now that is likely to change dramatically without Bannon.

With a few exceptions – like Miller – the most influential advisers remaining in the clown-car White House are globalists and militarists. According to a Buzzfeed report, Bannon leaves behind an executive dominated by “hawks and internationalists” like Kushner, economic adviser and former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn, and National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster.

Bannon was a “voice for restraint” against the military adventurism such as missile-strikes against Syria and increased troop numbers in Afghanistan, according to the report.

Have we seen the last of Bannon?

Unfortunately not. On Friday, Bannon told Joshua Green, the author of Devil's Bargain, a book about Bannon's rise to power: “I'm leaving the White House and I'm going to war for Trump against his opponents – on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America.”

What that means is a return to Breitbart, which is likely to become the administration's media mouthpiece even more than before. Bannon will take up the position of Executive Chairman of the publication. “Breitbart's pace of global expansion will only accelerate with Steve back,” Breitbart CEO Larry Solov said in a statement. “The sky's the limit.”

One Breitbart staffer simply tweeted: “WAR”.

However, there is already speculation that Bannon will return to Trump's side when – or if – the president begins in earnest to run for re-election in 2020.

And in the meantime, Bannon's exit has left the odious Stephen Miller, in many ways Bannon's ideological protege, as Trump's senior policy adviser.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.