Last month, United Nations human rights worker Tomas Quintana was set upon by a mob as he tried to visit a camp for Muslim refugees in the central Burmese city of Meiktila. “My car was descended upon by a crowd of around 200 people, who proceeded to punch and kick the windows and doors of the car while shouting abuse,” Quintana said in a statement.
Yet Burma’s government seemed relatively untroubled by the incident. Ye Hut, a presidential spokesman, told members of the media that Quintana had simply misinterpreted the situation. Apparently, the mob wasn’t a mob at all, but a welcoming party of peaceful protesters who were trying to give him a letter and a T-shirt. A few days earlier, through no small amount of bureaucratic wrangling, the photographer Andrew Stanbridge and I were able to visit the camp Quintana had been headed towards, as well as a few others nearby. I guess we weren’t as welcome there as the big UN hotshots, however, because we weren’t greeted by hundreds of people battering our car while trying to pass notes through the window.
The internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in question has housed 1,600 Muslims since they lost their homes during Buddhist riots in Meiktila earlier this year. The violent anti-Muslim demonstrations started after an argument in a gold shop between a Muslim owner and a Buddhist customer spilled out into the street. Things escalated quickly: Muslims allegedly pulled a monk from his motorbike and set him on fire before Buddhists retaliated by burning down Muslim businesses and homes and hacking and burning Muslims to death as police stood by, either unwilling or unable to help.
Estimates put the number of those displaced by the riots at anywhere between 10,000 and 18,000, with at least 43 killed. According to officials in Meiktila, there are currently 4,000 people split among four IDP camps—three for Muslims and one for Buddhists.
Confrontations between Buddhists and Muslims have been causing chaos in Burma—the Southeast Asian country formally known as Myanmar—since 2007, when the country began its so-called transition to democracy and freedom after an uprising against the military-led government in the Saffron revolution.
Violence in Rakhine, a state on Burma’s western coast, started in mid-2012 when fights broke out between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority that many Burmese Buddhists refuse to accept as citizens. But while there’s a long history of tension between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine, the situation is different in Meiktila, where the lineage and citizenship of Muslims is not in dispute and there’s no real history of conflict except for a few minor incidents over the years. Many Muslims from the area claim to have lived in harmony with Buddhists.
Aung Thein, a lawyer and Muslim community leader, confirmed those claims when we met with him in one of the only mosques in Meiktila that wasn’t destroyed during the riots. Thein echoed a number of Muslims we spoke to who didn’t wish to be identified when he told us that prior to the attacks Muslims and Buddhists had maintained good relations, doing business and eating and sitting at tea shops together. He blamed the prolific spread of hate speech for inflaming the hostility. Much of this anti-Islam vitriol has been perpetuated by the extremist monk Ashin Wirathu and his followers in 969, a Buddhist nationalist group.
When I went to visit Wirathu at his monastery, he told me it was Muslims who had been initiating the sectarian clashes. According to him, his people, the rioters, were merely defending themselves. “Most of the Muslim people are aggressive… They are the reason for this racial conflict,” he said. “When Buddhist Burmese people feel it’s unbearable, they counterattack them and [take] the law into their own hands, like vigilantes.”
Despite his frequent sermons about the scourge of Muslims infiltrating Burma, Wirathu claimed that he was now trying to avoid more disorder: “I’m trying to encourage all the people to live in harmony and peace with people of different faiths. I’m starting to lay out the plans of how to live in peace and harmony with the local people.”
Thein dismissed Wirathu’s statements, telling us that following sermons by the 969 leader, pamphlets and DVDs featuring virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric were distributed all across Meiktila. “After the Rakhine violence, I found the hate speeches were spreading here and the local authorities did nothing to stop it,” he said.
He went on to explain how local police now refuse to let Muslims gather in groups—”The authorities are always pressuring us that it could happen again if we don’t listen to their orders”—and that while a lot of the hatred and anger had died down, he still didn’t feel safe. He also said that the authorities were making excuses to not allow the Muslim IDPs back to their homes.
The tension in the city remains, and it’s clear that many Muslims are still on edge. Many of those who haven’t been displaced may be living alongside Buddhist neighbors who killed their friends or family members, Thein told us. “There are some people walking around [who were involved in the riots]. A woman had her husband killed. She knows who did it and she told the government, but they haven’t done anything.”
A Physicians for Human Rights report on the persecution of Muslims in Burma was released at the end of last month. It noted that there are still elements in place that could lead to “potential catastrophic violence in the future, including potential crimes against humanity and/or genocide”.
The report also stated that many of those who had been responsible for the conflict had not been brought to justice, including police who facilitated some of the aggression. “Police in some cases were involved in direct attacks… in other cases, the police stood by and watched and did nothing to stop it,” it reads.
When the report was released at the Bangkok Foreign Correspondents Club, its author, Bill Davis, said that though the clashes had stopped for now, the atmosphere of violence was still present. “It’s creating a culture of hatred and a culture that it’s kind of OK for this to go on,” he said.
The latest reports say that 87 people have been arrested, and that only 38 of them were Buddhists. “Most of the people really involved in the planning are still free,” a Muslim IDP told us. “It’s just the followers [who have been arrested], not the leaders.”
While many hold Wirathu and his followers responsible for instigating the Buddhist rampage, theories abound as to what’s really behind it. Many see the violence as the product of manipulations by certain elements of the government who want to push the country back towards the military and away from democracy. Others think that it’s a simple land grab to push the Muslims off Meiktila’s prime real estate and open up the area for development.
The word “cronies” is often thrown around, referring to members and friends of the old military junta who either want to maintain their grip on power or use it to get rich now that the country is opening up for business. “These cronies and the government want to move the country backward, and they create this Meiktila violence very systematically,” said a trader who spoke with us at the mosque.
Punya Wontha, a monk who was one of the leaders of the Saffron revolution, agreed that “cronies” were behind the violence. But he saw the disorder as being motivated more by financial greed than an attempt by the displaced military junta to win back political power. “The problem here is about land ownership and corruption,” he said, before pointing out another example of how Muslims are being persecuted in the country: Apparently it’s now common for government officials to refuse to give Muslims their land back because they lack the correct “documentation.” In many cases, the documentation never existed—and the land they’re refusing to return could make a lot of members of Burma’s former government very rich if they were to develop it.
“There are orders that they’re not allowed to go home,” said Bill Davis. “These guys said they have to provide documents to prove that they actually own this land, which, first of all, nobody in Burma has, because that hasn’t been the system. And second, their houses have been destroyed, so even if they did have documents, they probably don’t have them any more.”
He admitted that he could not confirm this theory and said there was no conclusive proof, but added, “A lot of the land is along the main road, which is very valuable for business and trading. Especially with the economy taking off, people want that land.” Davis also mentioned that there have been similar situations of the government seizing land through nefarious means in other Burmese states, like Kachin and Karen.
Parts of the city look like they had been hit by an airstrike. As we wandered through the affected areas we saw scavengers digging up what could be salvaged and, in one burned-down neighborhood, goat herders and their flocks wandered through what used to be someone’s living room, grazing over shattered tea plates.
Sometime shortly after we had lunch, our fixer pointed out a comically obvious secret police officer who had tailed us as we drove to interview some of the IDPs at a location far from downtown. When we pulled up outside a house to meet the IDPs, our fixer invited the policeman into the house where we would be conducting interviews. I offered him a deal: if he could defeat Andrew in an arm wrestle (using both hands), he could stay. But if Andrew won, he would have to leave. After ten or so minutes of awkward loitering, he eventually left.
Though he seemed bumbling and inept and didn’t pose any threat to us Western journalists, his presence was more ominous for our interview subjects and fixer. Despite the “Burmese Spring” and President Thein Sein’s constant assurance that he will free political prisoners, Muslims and human rights activists all over Burma told us they feared the consequences of being seen speaking to Western journalists by secret police and informers.
In July, an elderly Rohingya activist who frequently spoke out against the government was jailed on trumped-up charges, despite the fact he is in poor health and cannot access proper medical attention in prison. Another activist was arrested a few weeks later after sharing photos on Facebook of a police crackdown in the IDP camps in Rakhine.
The men we met who were living in the IDP camps all told a similar tale of their experiences since the violence began. They had lived in peace with the Buddhists for a long time, but had noticed tensions slowly rising. One, a retired police captain who had his house burned down, said, “I don’t know why this [happened]—our community did nothing wrong.” Another said that Buddhists in his quarter were very familiar with him and that he had cooked for them before.
All of them blamed Wirathu for the attacks and said that the military and government were complicit. “In former times, we had peace, but the hate speeches spread systematically, and—slowly, slowly—they got into people,” said one.
They told us there was no longer trust between the communities, and told us that the government needed to “make a policy” to ensure their safety. For now, though, their main concern is getting out of the camps.
The first camp we visited is called “the district playground”—an abandoned sports complex where 600 of the 900 residents lived in a small gym.
They’d been stuck like that for five months, since March 21. There was no privacy, no dividers between the plots of gym floor. Instead, there were just carpets or mats laid down, with a person’s possessions and bags of clothes serving as a perimeter marking the boundaries of their home. The floor was so crowded that two people couldn’t walk down the pathways side by side. One man said that he stayed on his piece of carpet with seven relatives.
No one seemed sure what their future held or what their best option was. “We have to go back to our houses. We don’t feel free here,” one man said. Another chimed in to say that if he could go back tomorrow, he would.
Others said they didn’t feel safe out in the streets. “We have no future,” said a woman whose house had been burned down. “We don’t want to go back.”
Unlike our experience in IDP camps in other parts of Burma, in Meiktila, we were followed everywhere by an entourage of police—some uniformed, some not. It was hard to get a question in before a police officer or official inserted himself into the conversation, and once that happened, there was no point in continuing.
Outside the gym, other IDPs had set up bamboo shelters. Some cooked, some had little shops selling snacks and vegetables. There was a football field, and some had decided to use the concrete stands as shelter.
After leaving the district playground, we stopped at a Buddhist IDP camp closer to town. Conditions there weren’t much better. People were crammed into dark, dingy shelters, though there was fewer police present.
At the other Muslim camp that Quintana had intended to visit, IDPs live in a water supply plant. Some mingled outside, chopping firewood, while others played chinlone, a sport similar to volleyball, only you use your feet to kick a rattan ball. Bamboo shelters and single-story administrative buildings were divided up into approximately ten by ten-foot spaces for each family. Conditions seemed better in this camp, if not extremely cramped, even though our fixer had told us that it was viewed as the worst place to find yourself housed in.
At this camp, our entourage picked up even more cops and nameless intelligence officials. They joked among themselves, nipping at our heels as we walked around trying to find space to conduct interviews, our efforts mostly in vain. The stifling heat, cramped quarters, and fetid conditions—paired with the uncomfortable feeling of leading a veritable security brigade around the camp—left me feeling nauseous. We left after a brief walk through, exchanging pleasant farewells with our escorts outside the police-manned gate.
The IDP camps remain open with no clear date in sight for when the residents will be allowed to return to their homes, or what’s left of them. There doesn’t appear to be a plan in place for reconciliation among communities, or even a policy geared towards mitigating a chance of further violence.
Speaking of the mob attack in Meiktila, Quintana said, “The fear that I felt during this incident, being left totally unprotected by the nearby police, gave me an insight into the fear residents would have felt when being chased down by violent mobs during the violence last March, as police allegedly stood by as angry mobs beat, stabbed and burned to death some 43 people.”
When authorities are either unable or unwilling to protect a UN envoy, it doesn’t bode well for the future of Muslims in Meiktila.