In Lashio one afternoon last week maybe a man set fire to a woman at her street-side petrol stall.
Maybe there was some relationship dispute between them. Maybe they were even husband and wife. Or maybe they had been.
Maybe she was a Buddhist. Maybe he was a Muslim.
Or maybe not.
No-one knows for sure.
But no matter; that maybe he was a Muslim and that the Lashio police would not hand him over to a crowd wanting to meet out ‘community-justice’ (I suspect in the form of something savage) was enough to trigger the smashing and torching of a mosque and the setting alight that same evening of a school or orphanage for Muslim kids and the neighbouring maybe-Muslim-owned shops.
It was enough that by the next morning groups of young men were strung out along the road from the airport and in and around the train station, armed with metal bars and wooden staves, knives and meat cleavers and machete-like weapons nasty enough certainly to take your arm off, maybe your head.
Nearby stood police officers and soldiers seemingly uninterested in dispersing or disarming them.
But the mood – at least for a white (not of ‘Muslim appearance’) tourist – was not particularly threatening. At the train station I weave unchallenged between thirty or so armed young men to reach and return from the station master’s office. Walking the mile or so up the unusually quiet road into town, passing group after group, I’m of as much interest to them as they are to me and I strike up a simple conversation.
After the familiar-formalities of ‘where are you from?’ and ‘where are you going?’ I ask what they are doing. The answer comes quickly from one teenager who raises his three foot, eighteen-inch-blade ‘sword’ above his head and shouts, “Kill all Bengalis”.
If any were unfortunate enough to walk by, I think he would.
In the centre of Lashio there are more groups on street corners and in front of closed shops. Not one is open for business; a Section 144 order is in place which effects a kind of martial law and requires businesses to close. As they scan the length of each street these young men could be looking to protect their property from some unseen (imagined?) threat.
They could be looking out for someone to prey upon.
There’s no doubt that the similarly-armed and growing motorcycle-mob that’s touring those parts of downtown that are not cordoned off by armed police is set upon destruction not protection. There are maybe 100 bikes, maybe more, mostly with two young men on board, almost all with one weapon or another. There are a couple of full pick-up buses from which hang armed young men shouting a rallying cry and pointing directions. And among this mob, sadly, inevitably, at least half a dozen monks.
Having been notable by their absence here in downtown as the motorcycles roamed around, the army moves men into town and, staging its own procession of vehicles, starts dropping small groups of soldiers on street corners. From my hotel I see half a dozen young men surrounded and arrested at gunpoint who are then driven past me crouched in the back of a pick-up truck, their hands on their heads.
I’m hungry and hear that the only place I can get food is at the bus station about a mile and a half from downtown so I walk down there, passing all along one side of the road more groups of armed young men and on the other side small groups of soldiers (more armed young men) .
A few streets back from the main road black smoke is rising above a Muslim-owned cinema that has recently been set alight. The Camberwick Green Fire Brigade are in attendance.
By the time I make it back into town the local and international media have arrived and the police have relaxed enough to let us in to see the damage done the night before to the mosque and other buildings. I think the pictures speak for themselves (there are more further down).
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A curfew came into force at 7pm but the hotel staff were keen that I should be inside well before then. The army had set up a wider cordon downtown and the hotel was now inside the area protected by barricades and guarded by soldiers. Rumour had it that ‘many muslims’ were on their way up from Mandalay seeking revenge. Of course they were not.
A loudspeaker-van ‘reassured’ people as it toured the city as darkness fell; “It would be impossible” .. “the army is here to protect you” [from a threat that did not exist], and made it clear that “carrying of swords and knives and sticks is not allowed and will lead to arrest”.
The curfew was effective, in the centre of town at least, and until very heavy rain fell in the middle of the night, drumming hard on the road outside my room, there was only silence. By morning things felt calmer, some of the fruit and veg stalls on the market were open, as were a couple of restaurants and teashops. Those streets that were open started to buzz with motorbikes, not now carrying armed young men, but many people coming into town early to pick up provisions, to have a look at the scene of the hate-crime and heading home.
I walk over to the – fuchsia, nice – catholic church where I meet Father John. he tells me that he believes the violence to have been organised well in advance by powers uncertain, but seeming to him to involve neighbourhood leaders and some monks, maybe elements of the police (and maybe more senior authorities too) using just a few young men to spread mis-information and stimulate trouble where they could.
He told me of watching the home of a muslim family next door being ransacked the previous afternoon, its contents being piled in the street and set fire to. The family’s Chinese neighbours put the fire out for fear that their own home would go up in smoke too. A number of Muslim families were now being giving shelter at the church. He had heard of others taking refuge at a monastery. He said that local Muslims had heard of a date to expect trouble on and that was when this had happened. A coincidence? Maybe.
Father John, is of Indian origin, could well be taken for a Muslim and had not left the church compound for two days. Nor would he be doing so anytime soon. Wisely so; walking back to my hotel I turned into a street where small groups of people were gathered. They had just watched a ‘Muslim’ being beaten by a gang of young men, still present, who had chosen to ignore the warning about going around armed. The town was full of police and soldiers, but there was not one of either on this one street.
Maybe the beaten man was a – fool-hardy – Muslim. Or maybe he was a Christian. Or a Sikh. Or maybe he had no faith at all.
Atheists are called ‘free-thinkers’ here. They are in short supply.
Whereas there seem to be are plenty of young men ready to act as storm-troopers for the Buddha.
But they are not a cross-section of any community. None is of any great age, none is a woman. Of course the extent to which their behaviour is sanctioned or encouraged by parents, wives or girlfriends is an unknown but we do know that an antipathy towards Islam inhabits many in Myanmar.
From a western perspective, some of my friends are racists, some of the places I eat or buy other goods are run by people ready to promote, if not hate, then mis-trust of Muslims, ready to support the idea that ‘they stick together, they cannot be trusted, there are too many of them, taking too many wives and having too many children’. The kind people most of us would at least challenge or maybe even avoid ‘at home’ but that maybe we tolerate a little more than we ought to elsewhere?
These are perhaps people too ready to turn a deaf ear to the monks at the heart of all this trouble, the saffron-jihadists thought-led by the pig-ignorantly dangerous U Wirathu of Mandalay, people perhaps turning too-sympathetic a blind-eye to the actions of the young men who might form a senseless pack the like of which was ready to smash Jews from their homes and shops in pre-war Germany, ready to slaughter a million in just 100 days in Rwanda.
So long as these essentially socially liberal (if still religiously conservative) middle-Myanmar Buddhists tolerate the actions – in their name – of extremists, creating the space for their propaganda to infect the – on the whole poorly educated – young of the nation (many do not stay in school beyond 12 in a country where a child has a Right to Work) then what happened last year in Rakhaine, causing the deaths of 180 and the displacement of over 100,000, what was echoed in Meiktila three months ago leading to 40 deaths and 800 homes burned, and which now has occurred in Lashio – 500 miles from where this all started – then there could be no quick end to this.
There are plenty of liberal, non-racist Buddhists around – Aung San Suu Kyi among them we believe – and it’s to be hoped that in the coming weeks and months more is heard from them. What happened in Lashio does seem to have truly concerned many ordinary people this week, but for others I’ve met it has prompted an entrenchment of their prejudice. In Lashio I was told Muslims should all leave now and go to Iran or Afghanistan*.
There was a very real sense and fear amongst the Muslims that I spoke to in Hsipaw (not so far from Lashio) that more trouble is brewing and that it could happen anywhere in the country at anytime. An ex-pat in Yangon told me that from what she hears “religious war is coming to this country”.
This sense and sense of direction must be turned around soon, replaced by something that promotes inter-community cohesion such that the prospect of more violence recedes. It may not be possible, so entrenched is the inter-community negativity, but even to try will require the few people with real potential to influence public opinion to speak up loudly and clearly. And soon.
Speaking at John Hopkins University after his meeting with President Obama at the White House last week, President Thein Sein said that he wants to see a “more inclusive national identity” and that “Myanmar people of all ethnic backgrounds and all faiths – Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and others – must feel part of this new national identity. We must end all forms of discrimination and ensure not only that inter-communal violence is brought to a halt, but that all perpetrators are brought to justice.” These are welcome words that must be followed up by welcoming actions (particularly and symbolically welcoming of the Rohingya)..
After too long with too little to say on these matters Aung San Suu Kyi said last week that she thought sticking to a still-on-the-statute-books two child policy for Muslims in those parts of Rakhaine where the Rohingya are concentrated was not such a good idea.
But as an election-facing politician, and would-be president, she walks a very fine line. She cannot afford to alienate her core support, made up of people like my friend’s housekeeper who told her that she ‘still loves’ Suu Kyi but also that she ‘says some good things about Muslims and I do not understand why’.
How far Daw Suu is prepared to go to talk down anti-muslim sentiment is a big question if to do so is to risk losing votes in 2015. What chance that she sits on her hands, purses her lips and says too little for fear of failing to live up to her image of her father, failing to get her hands on the presidential prize, only to inherit a country no further from civil war than it was when Aung San was assassinated.
When the international media report on this subject they tend talk about ‘inter-communal violence’. So do some aid organisations, including the Red Cross. I think it’s a misnomer.
When Thein Sein was his guest at the White House President Obama emphasised the importance of reforms maintaining their progress in Myanmar and expressed a ‘deep concern’ not about ‘inter-communal violence’ but about “communal violence … that has been directed at Muslim communities inside of Myanmar. The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them needs to stop”.
I think these words are the more accurate reflection of the facts because I don’t see two communities fighting each other. I see some young people nominally from one community being prepared and provoked to reject and repel on their signal whenever a suitable trigger event can be found or created, people, who have long-lived peacefully alongside their parents and grandparents.
However else this mosque burning mob is labelled – Buddhist, racist, idiot, – the vast majority are definitely Manchester United fans.
If Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama can’t get through to them, might they listen to Sir Alex?
*I start to think that one or two of the wrong sort of Muslims coming in the opposite direction might be something to worry about.”