MEIKHTILA, Mandalay Division — A funding shortage has slowed efforts to rebuild homes for thousands of people who remain displaced in Meikhtila one year after communal violence hit the central Burma city.
A project began in late December to build 403 new homes in the Chan Aye Tharyar Quarter, one of three quarters wrecked by anti-Muslim riots in the city in March 2013. Foundations have been laid for 273 one-story homes, and brick walls have been erected for some of them, but construction supervisors say they lack the resources to finish these buildings or to begin constructing the remaining 130 homes.
“The office has no more money,” Myint Htway, chief of the administrative office that manages the budget and supplies for the project, told The Irrawaddy last week on Saturday, exactly one year after Buddhist mobs set fire to homes in the quarter.
He said the rebuilding effort was funded by donations from Muslims around the country, with MM mosque (also known as Youn Net) in Rangoon as the main sponsor. Construction is moving forward with permission from the Ministry of Construction, he added, but the government has not contributed any funding. “Because the government is very poor,” he said.
He said 5 billion kyats (US$5 million) would be needed to finish the entire project, but that the construction team had only received about 250 million kyats thus far.
In Chan Aye Tharyar, located outside the main downtown area, none of the original homes are still standing, though a Buddhist pagoda and a mosque remain from before the violence. Construction workers—including some who once lived in the quarter and are now staying in temporary shelters—hammer away at half-finished homes, while goats wander on empty plots where new buildings will go up.
“There is space for houses here, but we cannot build yet because we have no money,” said Myat Pai Soe, an engineer from Rangoon who is volunteering at the project site for one year. He said the construction team would not be able to finish the project in April, as planned, and that he doubted the homes would be completed by the end of this year.
“Now the supervisors are very disappointed because they do not have money, so we are building very slowly. If we had money, we could build much faster,” he said, adding that 273 homes would not be enough for the “many, many refugees.”
More than 4,000 people are still living in five camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Meikhtila, while others are staying at a shelter in Yin Daw. People from four of the five camps in Meikhtila will return to Chan Aye Tharyar Quarter, according to construction supervisors.
The new quarter will include 403 one-story homes for residents, including Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, as well as 23 three-story structures that may be used as apartment blocks. It will also include a school, a park, a police station and a fire station, according to Thant Zin, the chief engineer and site manager. He said all the homes would need to be finished before any families could move back.
Other IDPs are from Thiri Mingalar and Mingalar Zayone quarters, both predominately Muslim quarters in the downtown area. Due to the funding shortage, plans have not yet been drafted to build new homes in either quarter, the construction supervisors said.
For the most part, downtown Meikhtila shows little sign that it was hit by riots one year ago, with busy traffic and shops open for business, but Thiri Mingalar Quarter appeared as a largely barren dirt expanse during a visit by The Irrawaddy recently. The quarter is located near a main road behind a mosque, which locals say has been closed since the violence.
Nearby Mingalar Zayone Quarter is where an Islamic boarding school was attacked during the riots last year, leaving dozens of students dead. The quarter now consists of an empty square plot of grass, surrounded on three sides by Buddhist homes that were left standing after the fighting. This quarter’s mosque also remains closed.
According to local residents, there were about 1,200 homes in Thiri Mingalar and about 800 homes in Mingalar Zayone that were destroyed.
In total, more than 40 people were killed during the riots, which were initially sparked by an argument on March 20, 2013, between the Muslim owners of a gold shop and Buddhist customers. A crowd of Buddhists arrived at the shop and started throwing rocks, destroying the building and surrounding businesses. Later that day, a group of Muslim men killed a Buddhist monk, and mobs of Buddhists responded with anti-Muslim riots. The Islamic boarding school was attacked on March 21, and Chan Aye Tharyar Quarter on March 22, while the violence continued to spread to more than 10 townships.
Among the displaced in Meikhtila was Min Soe, a 45-year-old Muslim who now lives with about 1,700 others at a camp run by the Ministry of Transport. He said water and electricity supplies were adequate at the camp but poor nutrition was a problem.
“We’re hungry,” he told The Irrawaddy, adding that IDPs received donations of cooking oil and white rice but no meat or vegetables.
Moe Kyaw, a 25-year-old living at another camp run by the Water Resources Utilization Department, said his family earned money to buy extra food by selling betel nut, but added that sometimes they and others at the camp did not have enough to eat.
Hundreds of schoolchildren in the camps continued to attend classes over the past year, according to Myint Lwin, a 55-year-old who serves as a supervisor at the Ministry of Transport’s camp. He added, however, that most of the IDPs wanted to return home as soon as possible.
“There is no tension. The Buddhists and Muslims don’t want to fight, they want to live peacefully together,” he told The Irrawaddy, while standing on the plot of land in Chan Aye Tharyar where his former home was located before it was burned to the ground.
He said he believed the riots were the work of instigators outside Meikhtila.
“Here they lived in peace. Outsiders came and burned this quarter,” he said, adding that he believed fighting would not break out again. “The Rakhine case was reflected here, it came here.”
Since 2012, communal violence in Arakan State, also known as Rakhine, has left scores dead and over 140,000 people displaced. A majority of these victims are Rohingya, a Muslim minority that is accused of illegally immigrating to the country from Bangladesh, although many trace their family roots in Burma back for generations. Unlike Muslims who were displaced in Meikhtila, the Rohingya are largely denied citizenship by the government.
Police officers guarding the IDP camps in Meikhtila did not allow The Irrawaddy to enter during a visit last weekend. Htay Aung Zaw, a district immigration officer in the city, said all of the camps were restricted areas.
Like other residents in the town, he agreed that relations were friendly between local Buddhists and Muslims today. “There is no problem between different races, they have lived together peacefully up until now,” he said. “This was not a religious problem, just a personal argument that escalated. All together we need to stay peaceful and cooperate.”