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    AP Impact: Massacre of Muslims in Myanmar ignored

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    ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, JULY 7 AND THEREAFTER – In
    this May 25, 2013 photo, partially burned Islamic religious books rest among
    the debris of Himayathul Islamic Boarding School in the Mingalar Zayone
    neighborhood of Meikhtila, Myanmar. On one of the country’s single darkest days
    since its post-junta leaders promised the dawn of a new, democratic era two
    years ago, 36 Muslims, most of them teenagers, were slaughtered there on March
    21, 2013, before the eyes of police and local officials who did almost nothing
    to stop it. Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe ______________________________________________________________


    Todd Pitman
    July 5, 2013
    MEIKHTILA, Myanmar — Their bones are scattered in blackened patches of
    earth across a hillside overlooking the wrecked Islamic boarding school they
    once called home.
    Among the smashed fragments of skull and jaw lie the sharpened bamboo
    staves attackers used to beat dozens of people to the ground before drowning
    their still-twitching bodies in gasoline and burning them alive.
    The mobs that March morning were Buddhists enraged by the killing of a
    monk. The victims were Muslims who had nothing to do with it — students and
    teachers from a prestigious Islamic school in central Myanmar who came
    so close to being saved. In the last hours of their lives, they only had to
    make it a few hundred steps to four police trucks waiting on a hill above.
    What happened on the way is the story of one of Myanmar’s darkest days
    since this Southeast Asian country’s post-junta leaders promised the dawn of a
    new, democratic era two years ago — a day on which 36 Muslims, most of them
    teenagers, were slaughtered before the eyes of police and local officials who
    did almost nothing to stop it.
    And what has happened since shows just how hollow the promise of change
    has been for a neglected religious minority that has received neither
    protection nor justice.
    The president of this predominantly Buddhist nation never came to
    Meikhtila to mourn the dead. Police never roped this place off to collect
    evidence of the carnage left behind on these slopes. And despite video clips
    that show mobs clubbing students to death and cheering, not a single suspect
    has been convicted so far.
    International rights groups say the lack of justice fuels impunity among
    Buddhist mobs and paves the way for more violence. It also reflects the reality
    that despite Myanmar’s bid to reform, power remains concentrated in the hands
    of an ethnic Burman, Buddhist elite that dominates all branches of government.
    “If the rule of law exists at all in Myanmar, it is something only
    Buddhists can enjoy,” says Thida, whose husband was slain in Meikhtila.
    Like other survivors, she asked to be identified by one name only for fear of
    retribution. “We know there is no such thing as justice for Muslims.”
    ___
    The Associated Press pieced together the
    story of the March 21 massacre from the accounts of 10 witnesses, including
    seven survivors who only agreed to meet outside their homes for security
    reasons. The AP cross-checked their testimony against video clips taken by private
    citizens, many with the date and time embedded; public media footage; dozens of
    photos; a site inspection, and information from local officials.
    The day before the massacre began like every other at the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School in
    Meikhtila — with a call to prayer echoing through the darkness before dawn.
    It was Wednesday, March 20, and 120 drowsy students blinked their eyes,
    rising from a sea of mats spread across a vast dormitory.
    When classes began, student gossip quickly turned to an argument in town
    between a Muslim gold merchant and a Buddhist client, which had prompted a
    crowd of hundreds to overrun the shop and set it ablaze.
    That afternoon, several Muslim men yanked a monk off a motorcycle and
    burned him to death. Buddhist mobs in turn torched 12 out of 13 of the city’s
    mosques and businesses owned by Muslims, who made up about a third of
    Meikhtila’s 100,000 inhabitants.
    Classes at the school were canceled. Students rushed to the dormitory’s
    second floor and gazed out of the windows in shock at the black and gray
    columns of smoke.
    As the sun slunk in a hazy sky, a Buddhist government administrator came
    to the all-male madrassa and took the headmaster aside.
    “You need to get your students out of here,” he warned.
    “The mobs are coming — tonight.”
    At sunset prayers, the headmaster told everyone to collect their
    valuables and their money, remove their head caps and Islamic dress and prepare
    to leave. He never explained why. He didn’t have to.
    “If they try to destroy this place, we’ll do our best to stop
    them,” he said. “But whatever happens, we will not let you die.”
    ___
    After dark, they crept deep into a swampy square of tall grass called
    the Wat Hlan Taw. Most of the 150 refugees were students and teachers, but two
    dozen women and children were among them.
    They sat down in the mud. Nobody said a word.
    Soon they heard a cacophony of voices, first at the gate of their
    madrassa and then inside. The mobs kicked in doors, smashed windows and set the
    place on fire.
    In the darkness of the Wat Hlan Taw, a teacher named Shafee with a
    stomach ailment reached for his wife’s palm and squeezed it hard.
    “If they find us,” he whispered nervously, “you know I
    won’t be able to run.”
    “Don’t worry,” his wife, Thida, replied, cradling their
    3-year-old son in her arms. “We’ll be together, every step.”
    At 4 a.m., Buddhist prayer gongs rang out, and the mobs began shining
    flashlights into the Wat Hlan Taw, screaming, “Come out, Kalars!” — a
    derogatory word for Muslims.
    By the time students fled to a neighboring compound owned by a wealthy Muslim
    businessman, the mobs were not far behind.
    Thida heard a boy screaming somewhere behind her. He had waited just a
    few seconds too long to run.
    ___
    When the sun rose, students peered over the compound’s thin bamboo fence
    and realized they were trapped.
    Men clutching machetes and sticks were girding for a fight outside.
    Hundreds more were gathering on a road running across a huge embankment that
    shadowed the neighborhood’s western edge.
    Some students made frantic calls for help. Some chanted and prayed.
    Others scoured the property for wooden boards and rocks to defend themselves.
    When opposition lawmaker Win Htein arrived around 7:30 a.m., he saw dozens
    of helmeted riot police equipped with rifles and gray shields. They had formed
    lines to keep the Buddhist hordes away from the Muslims.
    Over the next 45 minutes, though, he watched in horror as mobs chased
    five more students out of the bush, one by one, and bludgeoned them to death.
    Stone-faced police officers stood idle just steps away.
    “They must be wiped out!” one woman shouted, urging the
    killers on.
    When Win Thein tried to convince them to spare the Muslims, the mobs
    threatened him. An officer advised him to leave.
    Shortly after, a monk and four policemen offered to escort the trapped
    Muslims on foot to police vehicles on top of the embankment.
    “We’ll protect you,” one officer said. “But the students
    must stop chanting. They must put down their weapons” — their sticks and
    stones.
    As the teachers debated what to do, they realized their time had run
    out. The crowds were flinging long bamboo staves wrapped with burning fabric
    over the fence like giant matchsticks, and the compound was on fire.
    ___
    The group emerged slowly with their hands behind their heads, like
    prisoners of war.
    Almost immediately, they were stoned. The mobs screamed around them.
    What followed was a gantlet from hell, an obstacle course that came with
    its own set of macabre rules: Do not run, or they will chase you. Do not fall,
    or you may never get back up. Do not stop, or you may die.
    Police fired several rounds into the air, but the crowds attacked
    anyway, clubbing a student across the forehead with a hoe and knocking a
    teacher to the ground. One officer, struck in the face by a rock, apparently by
    accident, shot a Buddhist man in the leg.
    As they moved inside the Buddhist neighborhood, police ordered the
    Muslims to squat down.
    Crowds taunted and slapped them. Several women forced them to bow their
    heads and press their hands together in prayer like Buddhists.
    The monks said the police should round up the women and children and let
    them go first. When Thida refused to let go of her husband, a Buddhist man
    shoved a palm in his face and forced them apart.
    Eventually, police began escorting about 10 women and their children up
    the hill toward the trucks. But even as they ascended, other Buddhists hacked a
    17-year-old student to death on the edge of the Wat Hlan Taw, striking him 24
    times. One of the attackers was a monk.
    “Look! Look!” one Buddhist bystander shouted from the top of
    the embankment. “The police are heading down there, but they aren’t doing
    anything.”
    ___
    The last time Thida saw her husband, he was struggling to climb the hill
    to where she waited anxiously beside police, anxiously.
    His face was pale. And voices were screaming out: “Kill the Kalar!
    Don’t leave any of them behind!”
    Somewhere below, crowds were chasing several students who had tried to
    run. They beat two of them, along with a teacher, to the ground with daggers
    and sticks. Police stood on both sides of the hill watching, unmoved.
    When a frantic monk waved a multicolored Buddhist flag, screaming for
    the killing to stop, the crowds backed away briefly.
    But police left the wounded behind on the hill, abandoning them to their
    fate.
    A video clip shows a man viciously beating a group of seven bloodied
    Muslim men as they lay crumpled on the ground beneath a grove of rain trees.
    One of them is Shafee.
    “Oh, you want to fight back?” a voice says, laughing.
    Another grainy video filmed shortly after shows flames leaping from 12
    charred corpses in the same spot as crowds cheer.
    Smelling burning flesh, Thida hugged the leg of a police officer
    standing beside her.
    “Hey brother,” she asked, “please. Please. What is
    happening to us?”
    “Shut up, woman,” the officer replied. “Don’t you know
    you can die here, too?”
    Amid the mayhem, several dozen police reinforcements arrived to take the
    remaining Muslims to the hilltop and load them onto the trucks. The survivors
    were driven to a police station where they were offered water, and by at least
    one officer, an apology.
    ___
    The police present that day were the only ones with rifles and guns,
    which would have been no match for the crude weapons carried by the mobs. But
    while they rescued around 120 Muslims, they did not stop the massacre of 32
    students and four teachers, according to the headmaster, who cross-checked
    their deaths with families and witnesses.
    Two of the videos the AP obtained, shot by unidentified witnesses
    touring the area after the killings, show at least 28 dead bodies, the fists
    and arms of the blackened corpses reaching into the air.
    Win Htein, the lawmaker, said either the “police didn’t get any
    order from above (to shoot), or they got the order from above not to do
    anything.”
    The head of state security in the region, Col. Aung Kyaw Moe, insisted he gave authorization to
    fire, but police held back because doing so could have “made the situation
    even worse.”
    He said even though 200 police were deployed to the area, the crowds
    outnumbered them. Muslims died because “some of them tried to run,”
    he said.
    “They scattered and our forces could not follow every one of
    them,” he said. “They had to take care of the rest of the people they
    were guarding. … that’s why there were casualties.”
    Authorities say they did not hand the bodies back to the relatives of
    the dead because they were too badly burned to be identified. But families of
    those slain say they were never even asked, and never given the chance to bury
    their loved ones according to Islamic rites.
    No Muslim families have dared visit the cemetery or return to the
    massacre site.
    ___
    The first people prosecuted for the violence in Meikhtila were not the
    Buddhist mobs. The first were Muslims.
    On April 11, a court sentenced the gold shop owner and two employees to
    14-year jail terms for theft and causing grievous bodily harm.
    On May 21, the same court sentenced seven Muslims to terms ranging from
    two years to life for their roles in the killing of the monk on March 20, the
    day the unrest began.
    Meikhtila state prosecutor Nyan Myint said 14 Buddhists have been
    charged and are on trial for the Mingalar Zayone killings, some for murder, but
    none has yet been convicted.
    Justice “is a matter of time,” he said. “The courts are
    proceeding with the trials and have no prejudice or bias against any
    group.”
    Aung Kyaw Moe, the security chief, said all those arrested were
    residents of Meikhtila, but he gave no other details.
    No police have been reprimanded.
    ___
    The school’s headmaster dreams of gathering his surviving students
    together again and rebuilding his school elsewhere.
    He will not say where, or when. He is too afraid.
    He wonders what they will do if sectarian violence erupts again.
    “Where is safe in this Myanmar?” he says.
    On March 21, he urged his students not to fight back.
    “Next time, we will defend ourselves,” he says quietly,
    “because we know that nobody else will.”