Myanmar: Meiktila memories still fresh one year on

Many Muslim victims continue to live in Internally Displaced People camps, still dreaming of returning home.

RANGOON, Myanmar 

It’s been one year since a Buddhist mob rampaged through the central Myanmar town of Meiktila, killing local residents and setting fire to their homes. Today, the violence is over, but many of the Muslim victims continue to live in Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps, still dreaming of returning home.

The violence started after a mob attacked a Muslim-owned gold shop in the center of Meiktila following a dispute. Later that evening, a Buddhist monk was dragged off a motorbike and beaten by a group of Muslims. He later died in hospital.

Over the next two days over 40 people were killed by the mob, which also set about destroying Muslim homes, setting fire to mosques and attacking religious schools.

 “They brought them out and killed them with swords,” said Thin Thin OO – an eyewitness to the violence. She told the Anadolu Agency that she was standing by the Muslim madrassa, having just got off her moped, when three students were brought out.

“All of the children were hit in the neck,” she said, as she placed the side of her straightened hand on her neck to illustrate a chopping motion. “One of the children was hit on the neck with a sword. He dropped to the ground but they carried on hitting him. They just didn’t stop.”

OO is Muslim, but she may have been left unscathed as there was no visible way the mob could determine her faith. It’s impossible to distinguish many Muslims and Buddhists, bar a beard, a hijab or other visible symbols of faith.

The memories, however, remain.

“The Buddhists were calling the children ‘Kalars,’ they were saying: ‘Don’t leave anyone, finish off all the Kalars’,” she said.

“I remember the children begging the Buddhists to let them go – they (the children) were around 16-years-old.”

One year on, she is still haunted by the moment, adding that she still sees some of “the murderers” around town.

Eighteen-year-old Assad Ullah was a student at the Madrassah. He said he still remembers what happened.

“We were hiding, and the police came to take us to safety, but when we came out and walked through the Buddhist area, the Buddhists attacked us,” he told the AA.

He said that his attackers were armed with knives and swords, and launched themselves at them in full view of the police who were helpless to do anything.

“The Buddhists told us to worship them… They said ‘if you worship us, you will be saved,'” he said. “Some did and (yet they) were still killed.”

He said he remembered one of his teachers – Maulana Shafi – refusing to bow down to the mob and being killed before his eyes.

“He was beaten and stabbed; he was still alive when they poured petrol on him and set him on fire.”

Ullah started to cry at the memory of the day: “Everyone ran, whoever was found was killed,” he said. “I was lucky.”

By the time police intervened and the shaken Muslims were taken to the station four teachers were missing and 30 students had been killed.

“I think about it a lot… It is hard to study now… It’s hard to bear. It is very hard to deal with,” said Ullah.

On that note, Ullah suddenly stopped talking, the pain of the memory clearly too much, our conversation coming to an abrupt end.

Two days later, with the town smoldering, the military intervened and declared martial law. What was left of the homes was a trail of destruction with thousands of Muslims displaced.

The properties destroyed in the center of Meiktila are still to be rebuilt, leaving many victims unable to return, their homes reduced to burnt-out rubble.

Those whose properties were not destroyed and have felt that it is safe to return have done so, while others have gone to live with relatives or remain in the IDP camps, where they are dependent on aid from charities such as the World Food Programme. In the town center. mosques remain closed and only a handful of businesses operate.

Tint Hetw, 70, sits outside the Chan Aye Tha Ya mosque in Meiktila. There have been attempts to rebuild the homes around it, but the mosque still stands.

“First a mob of around 40 people came. They had knives and sticks,” he told the AA. “Behind them were even more, thousands of Buddhists, that had come to destroy the Muslim area.”

He said that although police came to protect the Muslims “they could not do anything to stop the mob.”

Al Hajj Maulana Hanif still lives in a camp with his wife and two daughters, exactly one year after the mob burnt down his and his neighbors’ homes.

He told the AA that he was one of around 5,000 people who hid in a nearby forest as the mob laid siege, only to reappear when police arrived and said they would protect them.

“The police took us in vehicles to the police station. There were also Buddhists with us, their homes also burnt down as they lived in our area.”

Hanif told the AA that not only was his house razed, he has no job, no home, no goods to sell, and accused the government of taking their land.

“We have no solace, peace or security. We are always worrying. What is happening? What will the future hold?” he said.

Hanif lives in a government camp where journalists are denied access. There are around 1,300 displaced people there. In Yandaw, at Madinatul Uloom mosque, there are 1,200 internally displaced people. They are all reliant on aid and have been there for a year.

AA was given access to Yandaw camp as is not run by the Myanmar government, but by local Muslims.

Laila Bi — a 33-year-old resident of Yandaw — told the AA that she used to have a restaurant in Meiktila but it was destroyed during the violence.

“We put everything into our restaurant, and when it was destroyed we fell into debt. How were we supposed to pay back the money if we did not have our business anymore?” she asked.

She said her husband has also now left, leaving Myanmar and travelling to Malaysia in search for work so he can pay back the debt.

“It’s very difficult. I feel depressed all the time,” she said, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. “I feel like it (the situation) is useless.”

As she tried to wipe the tears away, camp trustee Muhammad Ali stood over her and told her things will be “OK.”

Bi’s older brother was also killed during the violence. She now lives in a small, one room bamboo hut with her four-year-old daughter. All the families live in similar huts regardless of their size.

They all want to return to Meiktila but feel it is not yet safe, and there is always a concern that the violence could start again at any time.

Ali told the AA that Muslims from around Myanmar and others from overseas had donated aid to the people in the camp, but “right now we can only give them rice and oil,” to eat he said.

There may, however, be a bigger issue at the heart of the violence.

Most of the Muslims that the AA met believed that the violence was orchestrated, and not necessarily related to the argument at the gold shop, or the beating of the monk.

“I think it was a plan to move Muslims out of the main economic area. Some Buddhists are occupying the land and hoping that they will have future market control,” said Ali.

Unlike the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state, the Muslims of Meiktila are considered Myanmar citizens, but this does not appear to have stopped extremists from targeting them. Their businesses have been the focus of protests for some time, not least from extreme militant Buddhist monk – and leader of anti-Muslim 969 group – Ashin Wirathu, who has urged Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses and even likened them to dogs.

Such attacks have led Myanmar’s Muslims — who make up 4 percent of the country’s population — to complain about such hate speech. They have lobbied the government to put a stop to it.

Leaflets distributed by Buddhist monks often claim that Muslims are conspiring against Buddhists with help and money from Saudi Arabia. The narrative the extremists adopt is one that Buddhism is under threat from Islam, and Buddhists must defend their faith.

Little has so far been done following the violence, however, Myanmar President U Thein Sein did touch on the subject soon after.

“I am deeply saddened to find out that a simple private dispute led to such deadly violence and those instigators, taking advantages of the disingenuousness of the public, attempted to exploit the situation to engineer violence in other parts of the country,” he said.

Read the original article published in Andalou Agency on 20 March 2014

Myanmar’s Apartheid: Healthcare and memories of violence

The Rohingya of Myanmar are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world according to the United Nations.

SITTWE, Myanmar 

Myanmar’s Rohingya are mainly located in the Western state of Rakhine. There, violence against the minority in 2012 resulted in hundreds of deaths and, according to Human Rights Watch, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity were perpetrated against them – with the help of state forces.

The story of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar does not start with the outbreak of violence in 2012. Discrimination and marginalization against them dates back to post-British rule, with one of the most significant points being the 1982 citizenship law, introduced by the military junta, which stripped theRohingya of their citizenship and made them stateless.

The state commonly labels the Rohingya ‘Bengalis’, claiming they are recently arrived illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – despite a centuries-long Rohingyapresence in Myanmar. This has been further complicated by the historical placement of boundaries, with the historical kingdom of Rakhine stretching into present-day Bangladesh.

Across the border in Bangladesh, where more than 200,000 have fled, they have been met with hostility and resentment by the government. Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh dates back to the 1990s and the majority are living in unregistered camps or Bangladeshi villages, where there is no legal protection from arrest or abuse and little to no humanitarian assistance. Not wanted by Myanmar or Bangladesh the Rohingya live as a stateless people invisible to the world.

Extremist Buddhist monks from the “969 Movement” have targeted Muslim minorities in Myanmar, including the Rohingya,  telling their followers not to do business with Muslims, not to marry them, not to engage with them and even likening them to animals. One of the most prominent monks, Wirathu, has been likened to neo-Nazis for allegedly using hate speech against Muslims and warning of a Muslim takeover of the country.

– Health

Sittwe hospital is off-limits for the Rohingya. If the case is serious enough, they can be admitted by the International Committee for the Red Cross but are not able to freely enter by themselves.

They are also afraid that ethnic Rakhine doctors will not treat them properly; there are frequent stories ofRohingya dying at Sittwe hospital allegedly because of poor treatment at the hands of Rakhine staff. The claims cannot be substantiated but increase suspicions. Women who need to give birth are refusing to go to Sittwe hospital, even when NGO staff secure their access.

Some doctors visit the camps, where most Rohingyaare forced to live, but stay only for a short while, unable to treat everyone in the queues of people that go on and on. Like all goods, medicine has to be brought into Rohingya areas from the Rakhine side of town. There are makeshift pharmacies selling everything from painkillers to anti-biotics but, as with everything else, medicine is more expensive in the camps than in central Sittwe.

At the end of February, Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) was told by the Myanmar regime to leave the country. The move came after MSF reported that they had treated 22 Rohingya that had been injured and traumatized after January’s massacre in Maungdaw. The government denied anyone had been killed.  MSF were also accused by the government of hiring “Bengalis”. A few days later they were allowed to resume their activities – but only outside Rakhine state.

– Memories

Everyone remembers the violence.  They share stories of what happened, how their homes were destroyed, how their family members were killed in front of them and how they fled. Muhammed Hussein tells AA of the time that they were forced out, told to leave by police only to see their homes being burnt by Buddhist extremists.

“The police had first told us to stay in our homes but then told us to leave. They told us that we could come back later after everything had settled down, but as soon as we left the village our houses were set on fire,” he says.

“Everything was fine with our Buddhist neighbors until some men from the Rakhine authorities visited.  I do not know what they said to them but our Rakhine neighbors turned on us. We left the old and sick behind in the village believing that we would be back shortly,” he said.

The people gathered around him to listen to the story fell silent; all in the camp from the same village know the story. “A woman in our village with a two-day-old baby. The Rakhine killed her, and they did not spare the baby,” he said.

Hussein says the police did not even let them take their rickshaw bikes: “If they had let us then we could have brought her and the baby with us,” he says regretfully.  Others around him share the sense of guilt for leaving people behind, and for believing the authorities that they would be allowed to return.

“When we tried to go back and help, the police fired on us,” claims Hussein.

One man has memories of a time before the 1982 citizenship law, when Rohingya were considered citizens of the state. “My great grandfather and grandfather were recognized as Rohingya. They had passports. My father had an identity card that stated he was a Rohingya. Why am I called a Bengali?” protests 77-year-old Abdul Rahman.

He produces a green identity card, from when he was just 21-years-old, and reminisces of a time when he could live in his family home in Sittwe, rather than a camp.

“Are we not humans? Do we not have a right to exist?” he asks. His grandson shows his white identity card; a temporary one that states he is Bengali, not Rohingya.

In every camp the stories are of pain and suffering. Qadir told AA’s reporter: “We are just living, we are like the living dead.  We live without a life, just to survive each day.”

One of AA’s contacts has not stepped out of her house in nine months. It’s a self-imposed restriction in a way but comes from her fear of what would happen if the police decide to arrest her for speaking to foreigners.

She has been targeted because she is known amongst the Rohingya for providing education, distributing food and medicine, listening to people’s grievances and being amongst the few who are educated and capable of communicating in English about the Rohingya’s problems to the outside world.

“The international community just offers us words. Nothing in real terms. I do not expect anything from them anymore,” she says. “We have lost hope,” she adds with a tone of sadness.

While all this takes place in Myanmar, one of its most prominent political figures remains silent. Nobel peace laureate Aung Sun Suu Kyi chooses not to condemn the violence against the Rohingya, who she does not consider part of her support base. In 2013 in an interview with the BBC she said that violence against the Rohingya was not “ethnic cleansing”, despite reports by various human rights organizations.

It is not only the Noble peace laureate that remains silent on the plight of the Rohingya, the international community is doing very little to help the Rohingya on a meaningful level.

Read the original article published in Andalou Agency on 13 March 2014

Myanmar’s Apartheid: Arbitrary arrest & torture

In a series of features, Anadolu Agency correspondent Assed Baig, reveals the extent of oppression inflicted on the Rohingya.

SITTWE, Myanmar 

In 2013, in preparation for Myanmar’s census the government asked the Rohingya Muslims of western Myanmar to sign papers declaring that they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The result would have been the Rohingya identity being wiped from official records. Instead of agreeing, they responded by defiantly chanting: “Rohingya, Rohingya, Rohingya!” Following the protests the police began to arrest people they believed to have organized the demonstrations. The authorities refused to accept that they were not actually organized but were instead a spontaneous expression of the frustration the Rohingya felt at having their identity denied to them and forced to sign papers calling themselves illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

According to the UN, the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Hundreds of thousands remain in camps and tens of thousands have been forced to flee the country, risking a perilous journey at sea.  In 1982, under the citizenship act brought in by the military junta, the Rohingya had their citizenship removed and became stateless.

Win, one of Anadolu Agency’s contacts within Myanmar, was arrested on the accusation that he had organized a Rohingya demonstration against the census, though he is adamant that he had not.  Win was held in detention for a week.  “They beat and electrocuted me,” he says and then falls silent, not saying another word.  He has clearly been traumatized by the ordeal. Win was only released after his family paid a ransom of one million Burmese Kyat, around US$1000, which they raised by borrowing and asking for help from relatives abroad. His family now say that he is suffering from the psychological effects of the torture.  “He is not the same man,” his sister says. “He has changed,” she says, with a dejected look in her eyes.

Win’s family said that since his release every time he sees police near the house he begins to cry and becomes gripped with fear. His wife and children have to deal with the psychological damage the torture has left on Win’s mind. There are no doctors in the camps in Sittwe, let alone psychiatrists to help with the trauma.

Though Win was arrested for allegedly organizing protests, the authorities do not need any particular reason to detain the Rohingya. Muhammed Shafiq owns a little store that is little more than a roadside shack. He was arrested after going to a nearby military base in search of a soldier who had purchased some goods from him on credit but had disappeared. He did not even enter the base, he simply asked if the soldier was there but was detained and beaten by soldiers belonging to battalion 354.  “They tied my hands behind my back and kicked and punched me for half an hour,” he told me. “I only wanted to see if the soldier was there, he owed me money,” said the 22-year-old.  “They stripped me naked and searched me,” said Shafiq.

In one of the many Internally Displaced Persons camps an old woman approaches AA and asked to tell her story. Shugu Begum has not seen her son for two years.

“He was arrested in front of me during the violence,” she says. “We have been moved to camps and I have not seen him for two years,” she says as tears roll down her face.

Shugu looks tired and skinny.  Her grey hair is tied back and she has the look of desperation on her face, she asks, “Do you know where he is?”

Read the original article published in Andalou Agency on 4 March 2014