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For many Myanmar Muslims, it's time to flee

Families send loved ones into hiding as attacks spread

Kyawe Kone Lay village in Okkan Township was burned to the ground last week (photo: Daniel Wynn) Kyawe Kone Lay village in Okkan Township was burned to the ground last week (photo: Daniel Wynn)
  • Daniel Wynn, Yangon
  • Myanmar
  • May 7, 2013
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“The Buddhists came again on Friday night, shouting ‘Kill all, kill all. This is our land. This is our land.’ We would all be dead if the police had not fired warning shots into the air,” said Haniq, a Muslim man living in Kyawe Kone Lay, one of the villages burned to the ground in Myanmar's latest anti-Muslim attacks.

This small Muslim farming village in Okkan township, Yangon Division, about 96 kms north of the country's largest city, suffered the most severe arson attacks which took place on April 30 after a Muslim woman accidentally bumped into an 11-year-old Buddhist novice monk, causing him to break the lid of his alms bowl.

No one was killed here because the Muslim villagers said they managed to cross the creek behind their village and go into hiding before Buddhist mobs arrived armed with knives and sticks. Charred wooden posts are all that remain of the 49 houses in the village.

“We are now living in constant fear, especially as the night draws in. We have nowhere to flee to,” says Haniq.

Many women and children have been sent away to their relatives in Yangon because of the continued sense of insecurity, despite a heavy police presence around the village.

Early this week, women and children were still trying to discreetly leave the village in taxis driven by sympathetic Buddhist drivers.

Many Muslim men have decided to stay on because they fear losing their land as they try to survive on donations offered by Muslim associations in Yangon.

“The terrorists swooped down here in broad daylight so it means that they can attack us at any time. But I can’t help that – I cannot give up my paddy field,” said Haniq, one of the men who has stayed on.

As a farmer, his livestock and plots of land are all that he owns, he adds, and therefore he cannot run away. His children have been sent to Yangon, however.

In the center of Okkan, another Muslim man, Eithu, cautiously looks out of the smashed window of his home.

He and his family moved to this Buddhist majority neighborhood 18 years ago and have always lived happily alongside their Buddhist neighbors. Eithu said they saved their lives last week.

“Maybe some Buddhists from a different area of the town attacked us -- not my Buddhist neighbors who hid my family and fed me during and after the violence. But I still do not dare to go out now,” he said.

Okkan’s police captain, San Myint, said security is improved but he admits that violence could break out at any time.

“The situation is very unpredictable. That’s why we have deployed police in areas where Muslims are living,” he says.

The sectarian violence which started in June last year in western Rakhine state spread to the central city of Meikhtila in March. In recent weeks anti-Muslim attacks have reached Okkan and northern Kachin state. Overall, hundreds have been killed and thousands injured as Myanmar’s authorities have struggled to contain the violence.

Muslims across Myanmar say that they now live in fear. Many are taking precautionary action and fearing the worst.

Maung Maung, a Muslim businessman who runs an electronics store in downtown Yangon, said that he sent his three children to Malaysia last month and has also saved most of his wealth in a foreign bank over concerns that the violence may hit major cities in the near future.

“If violence breaks out in Yangon then this will be a sort of declaration of war against all Muslims in the country and we will have nowhere to run,” he says. “Wherever we flee, we will be under attack.”

The state of helplessness facing Myanmar’s Muslims has much to do with an inadequate response by security forces which had been so adept at containing social unrest during half a century of military rule, say Muslim politicians in the country.

“The government has [to take] responsibility to prevent anarchy,” says Myo Thant, a spokesman of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, a political party recently formed with Muslim leaders. “We are not safe. Our belongings are not safe.”

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