A crowd of people (including monks, in orange robes) outside Muslim-owned stores that were trashed and set on fire in Meikhtila on Wednesday.
Photos and videos coming out of the central Burmese town of Meikhtila show rioting and attacks against Muslim-owned businesses, in the country’s worst communal violence since last year's clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the eastern part of the country. The ungoing unrest has displaced thousands and left at least 20 people dead, according to a member of parliament from Meikhtila District.
The source of the conflict remains murky. But both local police sources and Muslim activists agree that it all started with an argument between a Muslim gold-shop owner and Buddhist customers on Wednesday morning. From there, the stories diverge. A police source cited by Radio Free Asia says the shop owner broke an item belonging to the customers, leading to a brawl; Muslim activists, citing local sources, say the customers tried to sell the shop owner fake gold. Either way, the dispute quickly drew a crowd that attacked the goldsmith’s store as well as other Muslim-owned businesses.
A mob attacked Muslim-owned stores in Meikhtila on Wednesday. This video was relayed by Burmese Muslim activists living abroad.
Rioting continued during the night, on Thursday and into Friday, with plumes of smoke rising around the town; a curfew declared by the authorities was evidently ignored. Several mosques were reportedly torched.
Police say that at least two of the confirmed dead are Buddhists, one of them a monk. An AFP photographer who was able to visit the town Thursday said he saw at least three burned bodies and houses on fire.
According to MP Win Thein, who hails from Meikhtila and belongs to the opposition National League for Democracy party, there are about 30,000 Muslims in the township, out of about 80,000 total residents.
Muslims represent about four percent of Burma’s population, according to the last census. A wave of clashes between Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya, a Muslim minority, in eastern Rakhine State last year left at least 200 dead and more than 100,000 homeless, with many Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh. Last month, a Buddhist mob attacked a Muslim school and Muslim-owned stores in a suburb of Rangoon.
"Eyewitnesses I spoke to thought the mob violence might have been organised ahead of time"
Nay San Lwin is a Burmese Muslim activist living in exile in Germany. He contributes to the website Rohingya Blogger. He was able to speak to Meikhtila residents on Wednesday and Thursday morning; communications became more difficult on Thursday afternoon, when some of his sources fled town and stopped answering their phones.
The eyewitnesses I spoke to told me that hundreds of people gathered to destroy Muslim-owned businesses in a very short time span, which they found suspicious – like it was perhaps organised ahead of time. They said many had sticks with them, and used them to destroy the inside of the goldsmith’s store and others. Later, in the evening, they started lighting mosques and Muslims’ homes on fire. The police just stood by.Mobs also surrounded an Islamic religious school, trapping teenage students and teachers inside. [Several Muslim Burmese activists, citing local contacts, believe that some of them were killed after the school was set on fire this morning. Local authorities have said that a school was burned, but did not mention any deaths. FRANCE 24 has so far been unable to independently confirm these claims].The Muslims I’ve talked to in Meikhtila are terrified. Many have shut themselves up inside their homes, for fear of being killed if they leave; but many others have already fled town [Buddhists have reportedly fled the violence as well]. They feel like there is nobody to protect them there."Muslims in Burma don't have anyone to turn to for help"Several leaders from the 88 Generation Students’ group [an activist group led by people who participated in the 1988 pro-democracy students’ revolt, which was quashed by the military junta at the time] travelled to the town today, to try to calm the situation. But it seems that the mobs aren’t listening to them at all. [Editor’s Note: Min Ko Naing, one of the members of the 88 Generation who travelled to Meikhtila on Thursday, told Radio Free Asia: “We would like to request everyone to stop spreading violence. Most local residents are trying to prevent the unrest from spreading.”]Over the last few decades, the authorities in Burma have trained the population to hate Muslims. Many leaders use derogatory terms for Muslims in public, like "kalar". Recently, things have become even worse with the conflict in Rakhine state and the increasing influence of a powerful monk in Mandalay, Wirathu [Editor’s Note: Wirathu is known for his anti-Islam views. According to several Muslim Burmese activists, he recently visited Meikhtila, where he reportedly criticised the fact that many businesses were owned by Muslims]. We don’t have anyone to turn to for help. Not even Aung San Suu Kyi [Burma’s opposition leader, who after years of house arrest, now has a seat in parliament] will help us, because in Burma, speaking out for Muslims means losing votes.