08 Jul Meiktila: After the riots
FEATURE - The thugs ordered Kyaw not to look as they killed his classmates, but the terrified teenager still caught glimpses of the merciless beatings as a wave of anti-Muslim killing engulfed his school town in central Myanmar, leaving dozens dead.
"They used steel chains, sticks and knives... there were hundreds of people. They beat anyone who tried to look at them," the 16-year-old told AFP.
Kyaw's small madrassa (Islamic school) on the outskirts of Meiktila town was razed during sectarian bloodshed in March that triggered an outbreak of Buddhist-Muslim violence across the country.
Officially 44 people were killed – although some fear the toll was much higher – and thousands were left homeless.
Kyaw, whose name AFP changed to protect his identity, escaped serious injury, but his school friends – who he saw as "brothers" –were not so fortunate.
"Five students from my class were killed," he said, with a quiet precision belying his haunted expression.
March 20 began as usual for the students, who traded jokes as they gathered in the school's mosque.
But by afternoon the center of town was already seething after an argument in a gold shop and the brutal murder of a Buddhist monk.
As word spread that Muslim areas were being torched, the students took shelter in nearby undergrowth, hiding overnight as a mob descended and set the school alight.
The next morning, security personnel evacuated local Muslims. Kyaw and his friends were marched through a hostile crowd, which hit them with stones and sticks. A few students retaliated. Some strayed or were pulled out and set upon.
The horrors that followed have been pieced together by rights group Physicians for Human Rights who, quoting eyewitnesses, described a Buddhist mob –including men in monks' robes –hunting down and killing some 20 students and four teachers.
Witnesses recounted seeing one pupil being decapitated and several being burned alive, according to a May report by the US-based group.
Graphic video footage given to AFP by activists shows an embankment next to the school turned into a killing ground.
In one sequence, a man is chased out of the undergrowth by an armed mob. One man hits him so hard with a wooden pole that the weapon snaps in two before a robed monk joins the savage beating.
Several more videos show charred corpses dumped in hastily-made pyres.
"When I arrived there I saw piles of bodies still burning," said local Buddhist political activist MyintMyint Aye, adding that she believes the death toll was closer to 100.
She said residents were swept up in the rioting, with a huge crowd cheering and clapping the demolition of Muslim shops.
But, like other observers, she believes the violence was manipulated, perhaps by Buddhist hardliners using hired thugs –a practice widely suspected during the former junta rule.
"If it was only people from Meiktila it would not have been that bad," she told AFP. "In just a day and a half, everything had been destroyed."
Attacks against Muslims –who make up an estimated four percent of Myanmar's population –have exposed deep fractures in the Buddhist-majority nation and cast a shadow over its emergence from army rule.
Security forces have been accused of being slow to stop the killing. "Killers and robbers are criminals – (police) have duties to stop them or to arrest them," said lawyer Thein Than Oo, a Buddhist who has acted on behalf of some Muslim men jailed in May for their part in the monk killing that sparked the Meiktila unrest.
"They said they have no order to interfere. So even the children were brutally killed at Meiktila," he told AFP.
At least ten Muslims have been convicted of serious offences in relation to the unrest. Only one Buddhist is known to have been found guilty of murder over the violence.
Families of the Muslim victims are too afraid to pursue the police over the whereabouts of their loved ones, according to activists who say bodies of the victims were removed and burned by the authorities without being identified.
According to state media, 49 people are on trial for murder with scores more facing court for their roles in the unrest.
"Both sides have been prosecuted," government spokesman Ye Htut told AFP, without giving further comment.
But rights groups insist the official response has been grossly inadequate.
"The message of impunity is shocking," said PHR report author Holly Atkinson. "In less than 48 hours they were able to drive... 30,000 people out of Meiktila. There are basically no Muslims in Meiktila."
Despite repeated requests by AFP, Meiktila police refused to comment.
Buddhist-Muslim clashes first erupted in the western state of Rakhine last year, leaving about 200 people dead, mostly minority Muslim Rohingya who are denied citizenship by Myanmar.
Some robed monks –revered in the country and who were at the forefront of past democracy campaigns –have taken part in the clashes.
"If there are monks who incite such harm, arson or murder... I boldly say that they are wrong," said Buddhist clergyman Sein Ni Ta, who was part of cross-faith relief efforts after what he termed a "systematic massacre" in Meiktila.
Senior monks urged peace after talks on the violence in June. But the meeting was used by radical cleric Wirathu –who has campaigned for a boycott of Muslim shops –as a platform to call for restrictions on marriages between Buddhist women and men from other faiths.
Blaming "Muslim extremists" he told AFP that Buddhists were provoked "to commit arson, destroy shops and to set fire to mosques."
Meiktila remains under a state of emergency. Life for local Buddhists has assumed some semblance of normality, but fear shudders beneath the surface.
Kyaw, who is back with his family in another part of Myanmar, struggles to sleep and is receiving counselling after his ordeal. Little remains of his Meiktilaschool –just a few scorched books among the rubble.
Relations have become tense in the Wa self-administered region as government troops have blocked Myanmar’s most heavily armed rebel group from accessing crucial transport routes.
Aung Kyaw Zaw, a war observer along the China-Myanmar border,told Mizzima that government troops prevented the United State Wa Army (USWA)from passing over the Kyaing Tone – Lashio highway.
“The situation is bad,” he said. “The Myanmar government has cut off the transportation from south to north.”
The USWA has approximately 30,000 troops along the northeast Myanmar-China border and has been flexing its muscles recently in an effort to carve out a fully autonomous state.
“The situation is tense,” Saw Lwin, a UWSA district secretary told Mizzima.“The government troops are asking for us to return three Wa territory camps.”
However, he also told Mizzima that there have been no battles and he expected the Wa troops to retreat.
Rumors have arisen that the Shan State Army (SSA/RCSS) has been asked to collaborate with the government troops.
When questioned by Mizzima about their involvement, Maj. Sai Lao Seng, a spokesperson from the SSA/RCSS, said that he doubted these rumors.
“We have had battles in the past so maybe there is some misunderstanding between the two sides this time,” he said.
The Wa self-administered state is currently made up of six townships in the borderlands of Shan State, where the country’s most powerful rebel group has held a ceasefire with the government since 1989.
More than 30 Buddhist monks were told to pack their robes and leave their monastery in Kyaytee Township, Shan State, last week when two battalions of Myanmar soldiers arrived and decided to set up camp inside the religious building, according to a statement by the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF).
The Shan NGO said that government troops took over the monastery from June 23 til July 2 after the 252 and 569 battalions engaged in hostilities with the Shan State Progress Party / Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) at the village of Wanwat in central Shan State.
“The soldiers set up a temporary camp at the monastery, so the monks had to leave,” SHRF representative Sai Khe Sai told Mizzima. “This is an infringement on Buddhist religion.
The announcement pointed out that government troops were occupying the monastery at the same time as President Thein Sein was defending nationalist Buddhist monks against allegations in a TIME magazine article.
In the village of Wanwat, four persons were injured while seven houses and a monastery were destroyed by Myanmar army heavy weapons fire.
SHRF reported that government soldiers seized rice, oil, money and other objects of value from local residents and from the monastery.
Beijing turns its attention to the on-going peace process between the Myanmar government and Kachin rebels at its border.
“China is keen to see authorities with the central Myanmar government work toward a ceasefire with Kachin rebels,” visiting diplomat Yang Jiechi said on Monday.
At a meeting with Myanmar President Thein Sein in Naypyitaw, Chinese State Councillor Jiechi called for an end to the Kachin crisis by advancing peace talks to ensure stability, allowing for further Chinese investment.
“The government and the Kachin side could maintain the trend of peace talks and reach a ceasefire agreement as early as possible to realize eternal peace and stability in the north and China- Myanmar border areas,” he stressed.
China’s official news agency Xinhua reported Yang saying that the Chinese government would work with Myanmar to help broker a long-term peace with the Kachin Independence Organization.
Writing in Asia Times on Tuesday, veteran journalist Bertil Lintner said, “China's position is clear: it is losing its previously dominant role in Myanmar to the West, and it wants to maintain leverage inside the country.
“China is showing that it can impact the situation inside the country in a way that the United States and European Union cannot. And China's role in this development is much more important than [the] awkward and often misguided efforts by a host of Western interlocutors who have become involved in the efforts to establish peace in Myanmar.”
During the meeting Thein Sein reportedly stated his interest in the countries’ relationship as “friendly neighbors and good friends.”
He expressed Myanmar's welcome of investment from China, promising to create a good investment environment and ensure the smooth launching of the two countries' cooperation projects, Xinhua reported.
The Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Myanmar government agreed an eight-point plan last week to push ahead with a nationwide ceasefire accord, to coordinate landmine clearance and refugee return, and to continue political dialogue.
According to a report on Friday by state-run The New Light of Myanmar, both sides also agreed to form a 10-member joint monitoring committee at talks in Karenni State [Kayah] capital Loikaw which ended on Thursday.
Minister Aung Min reportedly represented the government’s Peace-making Committee, while KNPP Deputy Chairman Khun Oo Reh headed the Karenni delegation accompanied by military chief Gen. Bee Htoo. It was the third round of talks between the two sides aimed at strengthening the ceasefire deal.
According to the New Light of Myanmar, the eight-point agreement was as follows:
“(1) To push ahead with nationwide ceasefire accord and continue efforts for all-inclusive political dialogue;
(2) The delegates of the two parties have discussed military affairs and have reached more constructive and progressive results, and the two sides agreed to continue talks about military matters in next rounds of negotiations;
(3) The two parties agreed to shape a joint-monitoring committee as follows:
(a) Two committee members nominated by Kayah State government, two by KNPP and six righteous community elders, adding together ten-member team.
(b) Personnel of the two sides bring together adopting the terms of reference (TOR) to be capable of working together with civil society organizations (CSOs), individuals and local NGOs.
(c) The two parties must not harm, threat or take unlawful measures against monitoring individuals and organizations.
(4) The local people and social organizations will be allowed to observe the new major projects which have been planned to implement in Kayah State including New Village Project; the completion process must be transparent with responsibility and accountability, furthermore the government and persons related to the project must guarantee safety precaution of the local inhabitants.
(5) The two parties call for coordinated actions to clear landmines covered areas with the aim of relocating internally displaced persons (IDPs).
(6) The two parties agree to coordinate a pilot project in Daw-ta-khe in Sha-daw Township for resettlement of IDPs.
(7) The two parties agree to form technical teams to undertake policy agreements.
(8) The government and KNPP also agree to cooperate for regional development.”
KNPP joint-secretary Shwe Myo Thant was quoted by Radio Free Asia as saying that the latest round of talks had yielded some positive results.
For more background:
A surge in drug trafficking activity around the Shan and Kachin border areas is due to higher populations of displaced people, not poor law enforcement, according to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Country Manager Jason Eligh who spoke to Mizzima on Thursday.
“The number of users has increased [at the Shan-Kachin border] simply because there are more people in the area," says Eligh."If you were to ask health providers and outreach programs in those places they'd say it's more a problem of displacement."
Sources who spoke to the Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N.) claim that the booming trade is due to law enforcers "turning a blind eye."; however Eligh believes that the problem is more complicated than local corruption.
"It's not really fair to say that," says Eligh, "You can't underestimate how difficult it is for the police to work in an environment of conflict. They can't access the areas they need to, and that makes things incredibly hard."
According to the S.H.A.N. report, local sources believe there has been an increase in crime—particularly theft— in the area. The main drugs being traded by volume include opium, heroin, methamphetamine and ya-ba, which is a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine; popular in many parts of Southeast Asia.
Shan State is known for being the biggest opium hub in the region, while the synthetic drugs—primarily methamphetamine—are also believed to be manufactured close to the Thai and Chinese borders.
“There's a large amount of manufacturing in Shan, particularly in the north, so availability is naturally high,” says Eligh.
The number of displaced people in the Kachin and Northern Shan areas has reached over 85,000 according to statistics released by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It is estimated that around 50 percent of these people are in areas beyond government control.
Drug users in the border areas are thought to mainly males between the ages of 13 and 35, primarily those disaffected by the fighting or simply displaced.
The unanimous voices of NGOs working in the area claim that the only solution to the increase in drug trafficking activity is to address the problems of displacement caused by the conflict.
“I think the best approach is containment. It’s nice for politicians to stand up and make promises and pledges, but we can’t afford to speak in absolutes,” says Eligh.
“The big problem is the conflict. There needs to be an end to the conflict before we can even begin to solve these problems."