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Government blamed by both sides over anti-Islamic riots

Myanmar peace moves begin yet violence continues

Thant Zaw Lwin next to his destroyed home which stood next to Muslim shops Thant Zaw Lwin next to his destroyed home which stood next to Muslim shops
  • Daniel Wynn, Yangon
  • Myanmar
  • March 28, 2013
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Last Friday was the day Kyaw Ohn, a 71-year-old retired police officer in the riot-hit town of Meikhtila, gave up his long-held belief that the state would protect its citizens.

Kyaw Ohn, a Buddhist, has lived in a neighborhood of mostly Muslims since he was young. Generally, they all got along well. When anti-Muslim mobs destroyed mosques and other Muslim properties in town last week after a brawl between a Muslim gold seller and a Buddhist customer, Kyaw Ohn formed a vigilante group, both Buddhist and Muslim, to prevent violence from coming into the neighborhood.

By the following day, most of the Buddhists had fled to the nearby monasteries or the countryside, but Kyaw Ohn, a civil servant with 41 years of service in the police force, decided to stay, betting that the government would quell the violence sooner rather later.

He was wrong.

“We heard that a huge anti-Muslim mob was on its way to our neighborhood,” he said. “Even though I am a Buddhist, they worried about my safety and pleaded with me to run away.”

Kyaw Ohn had to leave his neighbors who were preparing to defend mosques from the violence.

“Up until that point, I was expecting the arrival of security forces, but I saw no sign of them. At the last minute, I abandoned my house.”

His house has now been turned to ashes, and he says his faith in the state protecting its citizens is also gone.

But, even while living in a refugee camp at a Buddhist monastery, he looks forward to rebuilding his home and life -- alongside his neighbors.

“I never had any problems with my Muslim neighbors, and I will stay with them again,” he said.

Senior government ministers visited the refugee camps in Meikhtila this week, promising that houses will be built soon.

Anti-Muslim riots have left 40 people dead and more than 10,000 people, mostly Muslim, homeless.

The willingness to reconcile stands in sharp contrast to the situation in Rakhine State, western Myanmar, where deadly sectarian violence between the local Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims occurred twice, leaving behind a strong animosity between the two communities.

Here, both Muslim and Buddhist refugees look forward to the day when they can live again peacefully together.

Outside a football stadium on the other side of the town, a Buddhist tire vendor named Thant Zaw Lwin brings bottled water and snacks to a Muslim friend. Their houses were both burned down in the violence, but their longstanding friendship remains.

“I don’t know who burned my house. It’s maybe some Muslims who were furious about the destruction of mosques by Buddhist mobs. But it’s sort of tit-for-tat, so I can’t blame anyone,” Thant Zaw Lwin said. 

“But my Muslim friend was very good to me. Once he even painted my house first, after he was asked by his Muslim elders to give the mosques a new painting.”

The conversation with Than Win, a housepainter, was taking place under the watchful eyes of the police.

“I am friendly with all Buddhists. We never thought about our different religions we had. We spent hours at tea shops together,” Than Win said.

Asked if he has plans to move from the region, Than Win said no. “We fear further violence but not our Buddhist neighbors. I will live with them again.”

Like many people in the town, both men believe the violence was not accidental and the police did little to prevent the clashes from escalating to such a degree that several people were burned alive.

They assume the authorities are creating chaos but have no idea what the rationale behind the government’s inaction would be.

The refugees in Meikhtila described their bitter experiences of fleeing for their lives and two days of starvation during the violence but they said they are now provided enough food daily by the authorities.

For now, the violence in Meikhtila has ended, but it has spread to other townships, including Bago near Yangon where a mosque and a few Muslim houses were burned down by a mob.

No one has been arrested, and locals described the attackers as outsiders who have since disappeared. There have been rumors of similar attacks against Muslim interests in the former capital Yangon and police have been deployed across downtown areas since Monday.

The police department in the city told the local media on Thursday that the security presence will continue until the situation is back to normal.

Still, for Kyaw Ohn, the events of the past week have cast a new shadow on Myanmar's burgeoning freedoms.

“If the authorities are not enforcing the laws, this kind of violence would continue,” he said.

Related reports

Riots spread as US issues travel warning

Sectarian violence leaves 25 dead near Mandalay

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