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MEIKHTILA, Myanmar – The elderly Muslim woman was sitting in a bamboo chair amid the charred ruins of her home and when I reached her side tears welled up in her eyes as she held my hand tightly. “We lost everything,” whispered Amar Tin, 69.
While we were talking, her neighbour came over. Win Thida is a Buddhist Burmese who also lost everything when her fully stocked warehouse next door was destroyed by fire during four days of anti-Muslim violence last month.
Win Thida gently touched the old lady’s arm. “Amay, how are you doing?” she asked, using the Burmese term for ‘mother’.
I found this simple gesture so moving, after reporting on and reading about the violence against Muslims in Meikhtila and encountering the fear, mistrust and antagonism towards Muslims that seem so prevalent these days in Myanmar.
“We’ve been living like family all these years. We didn’t think something like this would happen,” Win Thida told me. “I just want peace. I feel really sad for anyone who’s suffered losses,” she said, looking on as Amar Tin watches her husband and a couple of other men pick through the debris.
They, like thousands of others, are the innocent victims of frenzied Buddhist mobs, their adrenalin pumped up by hatred of Muslims fuelled by rumours, hate speeches and decades of propaganda.
SENSELESS, INDISCRIMINATE VIOLENCE
The rampage in Meikhtila, a central Myanmar town, began on Wednesday, March 20. By the time it ended, after a state of emergency and a curfew were declared, 43 people had died – though many believe the toll was higher – 61 had been injured and over 1,500 houses burnt down or damaged. Close to 13,000 people were displaced.
The violence was indiscriminate and senseless. A family acquaintance told me a Buddhist friend was beaten to death because of his dark skin. The unrest spread to at least 14 other towns and villages in central Myanmar.
Before meeting Amar Tin, I spoke to Burmese shop owners at the market down the road. They defended some aspects of the violence and the involvement of monks, the most revered group of people in Myanmar. In the same breath they called Muslims intolerant, unlike Buddhists.
Later that day, a senior monk denounced the violence but said monks took part because they are only human, and that their part in the attacks was triggered by the Muslims’ killing of a monk on the evening of March 20.
That argument didn’t wash with me.
In Myanmar, monks – known as Buddha’s sons – are given special privilege and status because they are not mere human beings. They give up material goods, eat only one main meal a day and live an austere life most of us can’t manage.
They’re supposed to provide moral guidance through Buddha’s teachings.
That’s why we gain merit by giving them money and offering them food.
They’re supposed to be better than us. After all, the first of the five major precepts of Buddhism is to avoid killing and harming living beings.
TALES OF HOPE
Their role in the violence made me question my own Buddhist faith during the four days we spent in Meikhtila. Yet there were also many stories of Buddhists and Muslims helping each other that made me hope Myanmar can overcome this ugly episode.
Mya Maung, a 57-year-old worker at a mosque, found himself surrounded by a group of people. They saw his beard and started chanting “Kill him, kill him!” he said.
Luckily, a young man he had helped before was in the group.
“He shielded me and told the crowd, ‘Please don’t do it. He’s a good man. I owe him a debt of gratitude,’” Mya Maung recounted. “So they left us there and the young man took me to the police.”
A Muslim called Ba Chae was standing outside his home in Mingalar Zayyone township when seven young monks accosted him and beat him up. They wanted to set fire to him but two Buddhist women pleaded with them, he said.
“They asked the monks to donate my life to them, so (the monks) kicked me into a ditch instead,” he said, speaking from his bed in the hospital to which the two women and his family took him immediately afterwards.
At least 25 people died in Mingalar Zayyone, where a madrasa and surrounding houses were burned down, according to eyewitness accounts.
Local Buddhists spoke of a mob from other townships, including monks, who taunted them for trying to stop the violence. Unable to hold back the crowd, many hid Muslims in their homes while other Muslims took refuge on rooftops and other places without the owners’ knowledge, Aung Thein said.
“We didn’t dare get them out on Thursday and Friday because rioting was still going on,” the 60-year-old told me. Over the weekend, Buddhist residents went round the houses to coax out hiding Muslims, guaranteeing their safety.
“They started coming out of the houses. Some of them were still shaking,” he said, adding that he thought at least 100 Muslims had escaped death this way.