This photo is one of the rare images of the Meikhtila refugee camps, where policemen prevent journalists from filming or taking photos. It was taken in a camp set up in a school. The mother holding her infant told aid workers that her husband and two other young children were killed in the riots.
One month after the attacks that targeted its Muslim community, life in the central Burmese city of Meikhtila is still a long way from getting back to normal. Meikhtila’s police presence has been strengthened, and nearly half of the city’s 30,000 Muslim residents are now living in heavily-guarded refugee camps that they don’t dare venture out of.
According to the Burmese government’s latest figures, published in late March, nearly 12,000 Muslims living in Meikhtila fled their homes – many of which were burned to the ground – to find safety in camps set up in schools, in a stadium, and even in some Buddhist monasteries in and near Meikhtila. Several hundred more reportedly fled the region.
On March 20, a fight broke out in Meikhtila between a Muslim gold shop owner and a Buddhist client over the price of a hairclip the client was trying to sell. This incident spiralled out of control and sparked riots, which, according to witnesses, were led by Buddhist monks. Over the course of three days, 43 people were killed, and mosques, houses, and stores belonging to Muslim residents were looted and set on fire. This wave of violence then spread to several other cities in Burma.
According to the UN’s special envoy to Burma, numerous witnesses complained that police in Meikhtila stood by and watched as rioters attacked Muslims. Many other witnesses said they saw Buddhist monks from Mandalay participate in the riots. Mandalay, which is located 150 kilometres north of Meikhtila, is notably home to Wirathu, a Buddhist monk famous for his speeches denigrating Muslims, and for calling himself the “Burmese Bin Laden”, albeit one who is against Islam. All this has instilled a climate of fear for the region’s Muslim population, fear which has not eased one month later, according to our Observer.
This video, filmed shortly after the riots, shows Muslims moving into a refugee camp set up in Meikhtila's athletic centre.
“We don’t dare leave the camp much. Never alone, and never at night”
Abdul Sein (not his real name) is Muslim. He had lived in Meikhtila his entire life before fleeing the city last month. He now lives in a refugee camp in Yin Daw, a village not far out of town, which he says he shares with about 3,000 other displaced Muslims.
The camp where I live, which is guarded by policemen, is located about 15 kilometres from Meikhtila. We have enough space, and enough to eat – mostly rice and water, which is brought in from outside. The food is given either by Muslim organisations, or by private donors, which are usually Muslim as well.However, we are not free to go in and out of the camp as we please. We must get permission from the police. But anyhow, we don’t dare go out much. Nobody goes out alone during the day, and at night we stay in the camp. The women don’t go out at all anymore, after several of them said they were threatened with rape outside the camp.“We have to try to forgive and forget”I have not been able to go back to work since the attacks. I hope I will be able to do so soon, because I don’t have much money left. The day the riots started, I was just coming back from Mandalay. I saw several groups of people setting fire to mosques and attacking Muslim-owned stores. I managed to get to my house but I wasn’t able to grab much, just a few items made of gold and silver. My wife and I got on my motorcycle and drove directly to Yin Daw, which is about 15 kilometres away. Many other Muslims who didn’t have motorcycles or cars were fleeing by foot. Those who did have vehicles helped out those who were sick and old. About 500 people fled on that first night. Buddhists living along the road gave us food and water.When the violence died down, I went back to check on my house in Meikhtila. There was nothing left. Everything had been stolen: our clothes, our tableware, our rice, our cooking oil…everything. I learned that one of my brothers had been killed. I don’t want to think about it anymore, because it makes me feel vengeful. We have to try to forgive and forget, and avoid any more violence.I approve of Thein Sein’s government, but the military should do more to help control the situation in Meikhtila. The police did not intervene strongly enough during the riots. And if no action is taken against those responsible for the violence, we fear it will come back. Even if it doesn’t, we are still worried that Buddhist extremists will try to keep up from rebuilding our mosques and our homes, and that they will try to make it so Buddhists and Muslims can no longer live side by side.
The damage done
These satellite images, provided by Human Rights Watch, show a part of the city of Meikhtila before and after the riots. Whole neighbourhoods where Muslims lived were burned to the ground.