|"A woman cries for her home, burnt down during the riot in Meiktila in March." (Associated Press)|
By Peter Popham
The Independent, April 9, 2013
"In a wilderness of scorched rubble and twisted corrugated iron, a woman with wilted jasmine flowers in her hair was trying to locate what was left of her life. Ma Khin Aye lost her home and all her possessions when an anti-Muslim mob -- including Buddhist neighbours with whom she had been friendly for years -- set fire to it, along with all the others in the block in the central Burmese city of Meiktila. Armed with sticks and iron bars they then stood in the street, threatening to murder the terrified residents as they fled. Ma Khin Aye, 48, escaped the flames with her aged mother, who was almost comatose with shock. She braved the mob, got her mother on to the back of a scooter and took her to hospital. A week later, she came back to the ruins, rooting through the rubble to see if anything could be salvaged. While she did so, youths were looting the neighbourhood. They took anything of value that remained . Meiktila had been under army lockdown for a week, but neither the soldiers nor the police were there to stop them. 'I have no enemies. I have been living here for a long time,' Ma Khin Aye, who is unmarried and sells toys in a local market, told The Independent. 'Our communities have always been friendly: nothing like this has ever happened. At Thingyan [Burmese New Year] they would invite us into their homes; we would invite them into ours for Eid.' Who started the attacks? 'Some of them were strangers -- but when they wanted to find the homes of the kalar [Muslims], it was local people who brought them here. They stood there with sticks, shouting, "Come out, kalar, and we will kill you ..."'.
Two years after Burma began its trek towards democracy, and one year after the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's by-election triumph, the anti-Muslim violence took at least 43 lives when it broke out in Meiktila last month, and has left thousands homeless. Beginning on 20 March, it raged for days and was quelled only when President Thein Sein declared an emergency, sending in the army. About 42 people have been arrested. Unlike the anti-Muslim eruptions last year in Rakhine state, on the border with Bangladesh, where hostility has been simmering for decades, the Meiktila attacks came out of nowhere. When the army stamped them out, Muslim communities in 15 towns and villages to the south of the city came under attack, with mosques and homes knocked down. Then, last week, the flames arrived in Rangoon: 15 children and youths died from smoke inhalation when their madrassa caught fire on Monday evening. The government was quick to say it was an accident, blaming an overheating transformer. The Independent spoke to several Muslims who claimed it was a deliberate attack, pointing to evidence of petrol burns inside the building. The following night another fire almost broke out. Five men were apprehended carrying petrol cans into a mosque near the city centre. It is just two years since Thein Sein, a former general, became Burma’s first civilian president after decades of military rule and began rushing through reforms. The progress since then has been exhilarating, but the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment has suddenly thrown all that into question. Some believe the riots are due to the sudden release from 50 years of authoritarian rule: destructive urges held in check all these years are being given vent. Tensions have been heightened since hundreds were killed and more than 100,000 made homeless during clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in western Burma last year. But as Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the Irrawaddy news website points out, religious riots also occurred under military rule. [...]"