Wednesday, 3 April 2013
Eye witness accounts of Meiktila massacre; Beaten, burnt and stabbed
Reports of what actually took place in the Central Myanmar town of Meiktila are still emerging. IDPs are beginning to speak out and tell the world of what they witnessed with their own eyes.
“They beat them in front of me. I was watching. I can still see it.” Noor Bi, is crying as she describes the moment when she saw her husband and brother murdered in front of her eyes as she fled Meiktila.
The mob out numbered the police and they were unable to protect the Muslim minority of the town. The 26-year-old is now a widow with a three-year-old son. As she told her story and what she witnessed, the people around her in the make shift IDP camp now set up in the grounds of a Muslim school in Yindaw, began to cry. Grown men sobbed at hearing her ordeal.
“They beat them and beat them, they were still alive when they threw my husband and brother in the fire. They were burnt alive.” Tears stream down her face as she continues to relay her account.
“Once they had finished, they told us to bow down to them. We bowed down towards Mecca, but they started to beat us.” Noor pauses and then seems reluctant to tell the next part of her ordeal.
“The police asked the monks and the mob to stop beating us and that they would ensure that we would bow down to the monks.” The faces of the other people listening clearly show their disgust at what she described.
“They made us worship them. That is why we lived on that day,” she looks to the ground, not wanting to make eye contact with me or anyone else. No one blames her; Muslims only bow down in prayer to God, but this was life or death, the IDPs around her, men and women, young and old, all of them Muslim, understand this more than anyone.
The monks that asked to be worshipped were young. Noor Bi was even beaten whilst she was holding her three-year-old son causing her to drop him. Her son was saved by a Buddhist woman who sheltered him and took him to safety.
The fifteen women were put on a police truck and taken to a police station. The police asked them to stay quiet, as they needed to go back and rescue others.
Noor Bi’s account is not isolated. Sixteen-year-old Muhammed (name changed for his safety) saw his friends killed in front of his eyes.
The violence started on the 20th March after an apparent dispute at a gold shop led to mob attacks against the Muslim minority in Meiktila. Muhammed and his fellow students went into hiding when Buddhist monks burnt down their boarding school. It was 9:30am the following morning when the police arrived in three trucks to escort the students to safety.
Muhammed and the students were asked by the police to get on the police trucks. There was only one problem though; they had to get to the trucks and a mob stood between them and safety.
“I felt sick the last time I recalled this.” His eyes look tired, he tells me he is not sleeping well and had a nightmare only last night. “The Buddhists refused to let us walk through their area, even with the police escort. We had to try and walk around, there were not enough police to protect us.” His eyes are full of pain.
“We had to put out hands over our heads and bow our heads and pay homage to the monks as we walked,” Muhammed raises his hands above his head joining his palms together to illustrate what they were forced to do. “They began to attack us. I saw my friends murdered.”
“They dragged Abu Bakr away as he attempted to get on the truck, and began to beat him, he was still alive when they threw him in the fire. He stood back up, and then they stabbed him in the stomach with a sword, twisting it whilst it was in him.” He takes a deep breath, his hands tensed and grasping each other.
“I can still see and hear it.” His family stands around attempting to give him support, his uncle rubs his hand down his back, trying to ease the suffering this young boy has had to endure. Muhammed told me that there were a few new faces within the mob; he described them as having long red hair.
100 people began that walk to the police trucks. By the end of it 25 students and four teachers were murdered, beaten, stabbed and burnt alive. 71 survived but mentally scared for life. There are pictures that corroborate the accounts.
There are many other eyewitness accounts of the horror that took place in Meiktila, they are slowly reaching the world. We must ensure they are not lost.
Muslims vanish as Buddhist attacks approach Myanmar’s biggest city
By Jason Szep | Reuters – Fri, Mar 29, 2013
SIT KWIN (Reuters) – The Muslims of Sit Kwin were always a small group who numbered no more than 100 of the village’s 2,000 people. But as sectarian violence led by Buddhist mobs spreads across central Myanmar, they and many other Muslims are disappearing.
Their homes, shops and mosques destroyed, some end up in refugee camps or hide in the homes of friends or relatives. Dozens have been killed.
“We don’t know where they are,” says Aung Ko Myint, 24, a taxi-driver in Sit Kwin, where on Friday, Buddhists ransacked a store owned by one of the town’s last remaining Muslims. “He escaped this morning just before the mob got here.”
Since 42 people were killed in violence that erupted in Meikhtila town on March 20, unrest led by hardline Buddhists has spread to at least 10 other towns and villages in central Myanmar, with the latest incidents only a two-hour drive from the commercial capital, Yangon.
The crowds are fired up by anti-Muslim rhetoric, spread by telephone and social media networks such as Facebook, from monks preaching about a so-called “969 movement”.
The number is derived from Buddhism – the three numbers refer to various attributes of the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood – but it has come to represent a radical form of anti-Islamic nationalism which urges Buddhists to boycott Muslim-run shops and services.
Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country, but about 5 percent of its 60 million people are Muslims. There are large Muslim communities in Yangon, Mandalay and towns across Myanmar’s heartland.
The unrest poses the biggest challenge to a reformist government that took office in 2011 after nearly half a century of military rule.
In a nationally televised speech on Thursday, President Thein Sein warned “political opportunists and religious extremists” against instigating further violence.
“I will not hesitate to use force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of the general public,” he said.
Dusk-to-dawn curfews are in effect in many areas of Bago, the region where Sit Kwin lies, while four townships in central Myanmar are under a state of emergency imposed last week.
But the security forces are still battling against pockets of unrest, while state-run media reports 68 people have been arrested for unrest which made almost 13,000 people homeless.
The trouble in Sit Kwin began four days ago, when people riding 30 motorbikes drove through town urging villagers to expel Muslim residents, said witnesses. They then trashed a mosque and a row of Muslim shops and houses.
“They came with anger that was born from rumours,” said one man who declined to be identified.
Further south, police in Letpadan have stepped up patrols in the farming village of 22,000 people about 160 km (100 miles) from Yangon.
Three monks led a 30-strong group towards a mosque on Friday. Police dispersed the crowd, many of whom carried knives and staves, and briefly detained two people. They were later released at the request of township officials, police said.
“I won’t let it happen again,” said police commander Phone Myint. “The president yesterday gave the police authority to control the situation.”
The abbot who led the protest, Khamainda, said he took to the streets after hearing rumours passed by other monks by telephone, about violence between Buddhists and Muslims in other towns. He said he wanted revenge against Muslims for the destruction by the Taliban of Buddhist statues in Bamiyan province in Afghanistan in 2001.
“There is no problem with the way they live. But they are the minority and we are the majority. And when the minority insults our religion we get concerned,” he told Reuters. “We will come out again if we get a chance.”
Letpadan villagers fear the tension will explode. “I’m sure they will come back and destroy the mosque,” says Aung San Kyaw, 35, a Muslim. “We’ve never experienced anything like this.”
Across the street, Hla Tan, a 67-year-old Buddhist, shares the fear. “We have lived peacefully for years. Nothing can happen between us unless outsiders come. But if they come, I know we can’t stop them,” he said.
North of Sit Kwin is the farming town of Minhla, which endured about three hours of violence on both Wednesday and Thursday.
About 300 people, most from the nearby village of Ye Kyaw, gathered in the early afternoon on Wednesday. The crowd swelled to about 800 as townsfolk joined, a Minhla policeman told Reuters. They then destroyed three mosques and 17 shops and houses, he said.
No Buddhist monks were involved, said witnesses.
The mob carried sticks, metal pipes and hammers, said Hla Soe, 60, a Buddhist who runs an electrical repair shop in Minhla. “No one could stop them,” he said.
About 200 soldiers and police eventually intervened to restore a fragile peace. “I’m very nervous that it will happen again,” said Hla Soe.
About 500 of Minhla’s township’s 100,000 people are Muslims, said the police officer, who estimated two-thirds of those Muslim had fled.
However, Tun Tun is staying. “I have no choice,” says the 26-year-old, whose tea shop was looted by Buddhists, one armed with a chainsaw.
He plans to rebuild his shop, whose daily revenue of 10,000 kyat ($11) supports an extended family of 12. On the wall of his ransacked kitchen is a portrait of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He did not believe she could do anything to help.
Tun Tun traced the rising communal tension in Minhla to speeches given on February 26 and 27 by a celebrated monk visiting from Mon State, to the east of Yangon.
He spoke to a crowd of 2,000 about the “969 movement”, said Win Myint, 59, who runs a Buddhist community centre which hosted the monk.
After the speech, Muslims were jeered and fewer Buddhists frequented his tea shop, said Tun Tun. Stickers bearing the number 969 appeared on non-Muslim street stalls across Minhla.
President Thein Sein’s ambitious reform programme has won praise, but his government has also been criticised for failing to stem violence last year in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, where officials say 110 people were killed and 120,000 were left homeless, most of them Rohingya Muslims.
The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar said on Thursday he had received reports of “state involvement” in the recent violence at Meikhtila.
Soldiers and police sometimes stood by “while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organised ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs”, said the rapporteur, Tomas Ojea Quintana. “This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the state or implicit collusion and support for such actions.”
Late on Friday, three monks were preparing to give another “969” speech in Ok Kan, a town 113 km (70 miles) from Yangon.
(Additional reporting by Min Zayar Oo; Editing by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Robert Birsel)
Buddhism turns violent in Myanmar
Violence and discrimination against Muslims is currently framed by some Buddhist groups as a necessary response to the imminent threat of Islam’s expansion into the Buddhist community
By Matthew J Walton
Matthew J Walton is an adjunct professor in political science at The George Washington University. This autumn, he will become the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent violence in Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims in the central town of Meikhtila (also spelt Meiktila) and areas beyond, which has left a reported 43 people dead, as many as 12,000 displaced, and more than 1,000 homes and building destroyed, has raised concerns over the stability of the country’s current democratic transition and the imposition of martial law in the troubled area has raised the specter of a return to direct military rule.
The communal riots of the past year in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas have now expanded into a broader Buddhist versus Muslim framing that has spread dangerously across the country.
Buddhist campaigns against Muslims, such as the increasingly visible Buddhist nationalist ”969” movement, seem to have inflamed tensions in Meikhtila and prompted outside observers to worry about the role of monks in encouraging discrimination and even violence against Myanmar’s minority Muslim population.  While Buddhist nationalism has long had the potential to be turned against non-Buddhist groups, Buddhism’s influence on politics and public opinion requires careful analysis in Myanmar’s contemporary context.
The Buddhist-Muslim conflict embodies a broader threat to democratic consolidation in Myanmar that reflects a common theme in Theravada Buddhist history, yet also represents only one potential interpretation of Buddhist principles. Violence and discrimination against Muslims is currently framed by some Buddhist groups as a necessary response to the imminent threat of Islam’s expansion into the Buddhist community; in a situation like this, some Buddhists have argued that any actions can be justified in order to protect the religion.
A compelling counter-argument, however, is rooted in Buddhist values and doctrine that prioritizes the democratic values of inclusion and tolerance as a better strategy for the long-term protection of Myanmar’s Buddhist community. The Pali word savanna refers not just to the Buddhist community of monks, nuns, and lay people, but to the very existence of the Buddha’s teachings. For Theravada Buddhists, this includes the texts of the Pali canon as well as the vast commentarial literature. The lived knowledge of those teachings among Buddhists is critically important, for without all of this enlightenment would be impossible.
Religious and political figures throughout Buddhist history have justified many violent, exclusionary acts by claiming to be acting “in defense of the savanna”. One of the earliest accounts is of the Sinhalese king Dutthagamani who defeated a Tamil king in approximately the first century BCE, declaring that his purpose was not to win territory but to protect the sasana. Monks even allegedly disrobed in order to join his army and fight.
When Dutthagamani experienced remorse at the bloodshed he had caused, his monastic advisers assured him that there was no need to worry. Only one and a half “people” had died at the hands of his army, one who had taken the Five Precepts (and who could be considered Buddhist, and therefore, human) and one who had taken a lesser vow. The rest were all non-Buddhists, less than human and not even deserving of consideration, let alone pity, according to the advisers.
Religious and political leaders have also employed “defense of the sasana” arguments in contemporary democratic contexts in order to justify bloody, anti-democratic policies, particularly violence against non-Buddhist religious groups perceived as a threat to Buddhism. In contemporary Sri Lanka, some nationalist monks exhorted the Buddhist-led government to press the prosecution of the war against the Tamil resistance (won in brutal fashion by the government in 2009) using imagery that invoked the legacy of Dutthagamani.
They were following in the footsteps of the controversial Sinhalese monk Walpola Rahula, who, in legitimizing monastic participation in politics in the 1970s, also commented approvingly of the belief of Dutthagamani’s monastic advisors that “the destruction of human beings [for the purpose of protecting the religion] was not a very grave crime”.
Some modern conflicts between Buddhists and non-Buddhists have not been explicitly framed by the rhetoric of defending the sasana, but the connection is still apparent. For example, national political leaders in Thailand have stressed that the ongoing conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in several southern provinces is simply evidence of lawlessness and banditry, or foreign influence. Yet the state has encouraged the formation of Buddhist citizen protection groups in response to the crisis (something that is also rumored to be happening now in Myanmar).
More importantly, the “protection of the sasana” argument no longer needs to be explicit in cases like Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar, where the identity of the Buddhist majority has effectively merged with the national identity. Calls to “defend the motherland” in these countries might appear to be simply nationalistic, yet the long-standing connection in Buddhist political thought between the integrity and strength of the state and the health of the religion suggests that many people view these conflicts through a religious lens.
The recent march of thousands of Buddhist monks in anti-Muslim protests across Myanmar makes it clear that they see the purification of the state and the protection of the sasana as coterminous processes. The 969 movement has launched a sort of “Buy Buddhist” campaign, urging Myanmar’s Buddhists to strengthen the sasana against the imagined threat of expansionist Islam by patronizing only Buddhist businesses; its logic suggests that the only way to protect Buddhism is to drive Islam completely out of the country by economically punishing local Muslim populations until they are forced to leave.
The Myanmar monk U Wirathu allegedly recently billed himself as the “Burmese Bin Laden”, saying he would use any means necessary to defend his religion and nation. He is a complex figure, having helped to organize recent citizen protests against police violence but also traveling the country giving sermons in which he demonizes Muslims and urges Buddhists to join the 969 boycott campaign.
While supporters of the 969 movement have billed it as a peaceful campaign to promote Buddhism, there are reports that “969” has been spray-painted on the walls of recently destroyed mosques in other cities in Myanmar, suggesting that at least some in the movement have adopted a more vindictive and retaliatory “defense” of Buddhism.
Powerful political tool
It is critical for scholars and policymakers analyzing recent events to recognize the persuasive force of religious reasons given in defense of discriminatory or exclusionary policies. This is a particular threat to continued reform in countries where democratic practices and values have not yet been consolidated, as is currently the case in Myanmar. At the moment in which the Buddhist sasana is threatened, democracy reverts to theocracy.
The argument for the defense of the sasana is so compelling and difficult to refute (what Buddhist wants to be accused of not defending the religion?) that it remains a powerful political tool. The recent conflicts in Myanmar likely have more localized and personalized causes, as people struggle to maintain stability in a transitional context of economic, political, and social uncertainty. However, the broader religious context allows Buddhists to portray Islam and the Muslim community as a threat to the sasana, despite the absence of evidence to support this claim.
The sasana is central to Buddhist belief and practice, and it would be unreasonable to expect any Buddhist to prioritize a set of worldly political institutions and practices over the Buddha’s teachings. A different response, however, would be to argue that a commitment to democratic principles need not be in opposition to defense of the sasana.
This type of argument has not yet been developed or advanced by Buddhist groups, although an increasing number of Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike have criticized the violent and exclusionary actions allegedly in defense of the sasana as antithetical to core Buddhist values.
One of the more compelling criticisms against the violence is that Buddhist discrimination against Muslim Rohingya or any other Muslim group is antithetical to the core Buddhist values of metta (loving-kindness) and karuna (compassion). These are two of the four qualities that are among the most noble and sublime attributes that a Buddhist can cultivate.
A key aspect of both metta and karuna is the non-discriminating quality of these characteristics. That is, the ideal of Buddhist practice is to cultivate the same feelings of loving-kindness and compassion toward every living being, including one’s enemies. Some explanations of metta and karuna mark these end cases, where the practice of compassion and loving-kindness is the most difficult, as the key moments of personal moral development where one overcomes prejudice and partiality.
The Myanmar Buddhist monks who marched against the previous military regime in 2007 chanted the metta sutta, a prayer of protection that texts relate the Buddha taught to some monks who wanted to meditate in a forest but were fearful of being attacked by wild animals. This prayer invokes a wish that all beings might be free from suffering, a far cry from current reports in the country that suggest Buddhist monks are encouraging their followers to shun and even attack those (Buddhist and non-Buddhist) who do something as simple as patronize a Muslim-owned business.
The argument for protection of the sasana has always relied on an “end justifies the means” logic, in which the preservation of the Buddhist community as a whole allows Buddhists to act in ways, including the promotion of hatred, discrimination and exclusion, that contravene the basic moral teachings of the religion. The counter-argument, however, is that the best way to preserve the sasana in the present and future and strengthen the moral practice of the community is to act in accordance with the basic values of the Buddha’s teachings in political, social and economic realms.
The dominant framing driving Buddhist anti-Muslim actions in Myanmar is one in which Muslims are posited as a threat to Buddhism, which appears to justify any number of anti-democratic, extra-legal, and violent actions. Not only does this “defense of the sasana” argument pose a threat to democratic consolidation in the country, it also fundamentally misreads the nature of threats to Buddhism in Myanmar.
Actions by Buddhists that contravene the basic values of the religion pose a much greater threat to the health of the sasana than the mere presence of other religions. In Myanmar’s current case, Buddhism and Buddhists are not inherently xenophobic, racist, fascistic, or anything else that they been labeled, but they have in recent paroxysms acquiesced to an intolerant and ultimately self-destructive interpretation of their religious values.
It is the responsibility of Buddhists, and especially monks, whose exalted position in Myanmar society allows them to influence public opinion, to develop alternate interpretations of Buddhist doctrine that denounce violence and insist that adherence to democratic values is indeed the best way to strengthen and defend the Buddhist community in a time of transition.
1. In the ”969″ referenced by the Buddhist movement, the first 9 stands for the nine special attributes of the Buddha; the 6 for the six special attributes of his Dhamma, or Buddhist teachings; and the last 9 for the nine special attributes of Buddhist monks, according to Irrawaddy magazine.