MEIKHTILA—Pressure is growing on the Burmese government to investigate an alleged massacre of more than 30 Muslim students at a madrasa in Meikhtila town in central Burma, during an outburst of inter-communal violence last month.
Reports of the incident, which would constitute one of the biggest single acts of mass killing since anti-Muslim violence began, have been corroborated by eyewitnesses.
The students who were at the madrasa in Mingalarzayaung quarter when it was attacked and razed by a mob on the morning of 21 March remain unaccounted for. Families of the missing fear they were killed, and say authorities have given no information about their whereabouts.
Staff working for the US-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) collected the names of 32 students missing since the attack. An additional four teachers are also unaccounted for. Testimonies collected last week from eyewitnesses, one of whom told The Irrawaddy she had seen a pile of bodies being burned close to the madrasa, lend weight to fears that all of the missing are dead.
The majority of the Muslim population of Mingalarzayaung quarter now resides in camps outside Meikhtila town. One lady interviewed in an unofficial camp for some 3,400 displaced persons, said she had not seen her son, a 26-year-old teacher at the madrasa, since the attack. Students who managed to escape later relayed his final moments to her.
“He was trying to help the other students to hide in bushes close to the madrasa,” she said. Police had arrived after the mob started attacking and told the students to come out from the bushes. “They [the police] said they would be safe. Some of the students tried to run but were caught by the mob.” Her son confronted a group of the attackers and a fight broke out. “The students told me that they saw him fall to the ground and then they cut him with a sword.”
Win Htein, head of the National League for Democracy’s branch in Meikhtila, also witnessed the attack on the madrasa. He says that he saw eight people being killed, and that “police stood and watched” as the attack unfolded.
A local Burmese reporter who arrived at the madrasa around 5 pm on 21 March, some six hours after the attack took place. She said she saw a pile of 30 to 40 bodies between the madrasa and a nearby elevated road. She returned at 9 pm and the bodies were on fire. People were standing around the pile, some of whom she said were crying.
Video shot by Radio Free Asia and circulated on Facebook shows the immediate aftermath of the attack on the madrasa and surrounding buildings, with police seen escorting hundreds of Muslims out of Mingalarzayaung quarter. At one point in the video, a woman watching the evacuation from the road is heard shouting “Kill them, kill them!”
The Irrawaddy visited the site in early April and found the area to be a mass of rubble. Various other buildings surrounding the madrasa were also razed–satellite images obtained by Human Rights Watch indicate that 46 buildings were destroyed in the neighborhood. Apart from a few piles of charred clothing, the area had been picked clean by scavengers. Security forces were nowhere to be seen.
A 32-year-old woman at the camp, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that she had seen an elderly man attacked by a group of men as he walked away from the madrasa with his grandson. She said she saw him fall to the ground, but could not see what happened to the child. Other groups of students who had escaped the building were reportedly set upon by the waiting mob.
According to Physicians for Human Rights, the 32 students still missing from the incident are aged between 14 and 24. Although no information about their whereabouts has been released, and authorities have refused to provide any details, PHR said that families and community leaders the group interviewed “feared that all of the missing were killed.”
The mother of the 26-year-old teacher said she believed his body had been burned during a mass cremation. This would support eyewitness reports of a pile of bodies burning close to the madrasa. Win Htein also said he had heard the bodies were burned. “The Muslim community is very upset that that they weren’t given Muslim rights.”
PHR said in a statement that some of the missing students have been identified in photographs of dead bodies taken in the town immediately following the attacks. The group said the government should allow international investigators to probe the madrasa massacre, and urged community and religious leaders to denounce the violence.
The violence in Meikhtila was triggered on 20 March by a brawl in a gold shop between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owner; later that day, a group of Muslims reportedly snatched a monk, U Thawbita, from a monastery, and killed him. The two incidents sparked a wave of attacks by Buddhist mobs on Muslims that ceased only after the announcement of martial law on 22 March.
More than 12,000 people have been displaced since the violence began. Five official camps for displaced civilians have been set up in Meikhtila—three for Muslims, and two for Buddhists. Other unofficial camps exist outside of town. Since the end of March, journalists have barred from entering the official camps; according to Win Htein, aid distributed by the NLD and other local groups has to be left outside of the camps, although this has not been independently verified.
He dismissed reports that the violence was organized, although acknowledged that he had witnessed police standing by and watching several killings take place. “The police had told [government officials] that the violence was stopped early, but it wasn’t—no action was taken.”
By the time a state of emergency was announced on the 22 March, the official death toll had reached 43 and 93 people had been hospitalized. Burmese authorities have made no statement regarding the alleged madrasa attack and it remains unclear whether the incident is being investigated.
After visiting Meikhtila in late March, leader of the 88 Generation Students activists Min Ko Naing told the media that he had “a strong suspicion that these violent situations were caused intentionally by highly-trained persons.”
Like other incidents of violence in Burma, particularly against the Rohingya minority in Arakan state, locals in Meikhtila say many of the attackers were brought in from outside the town, suggesting the unrest had been planned.
One aid group who did not want to be identified told The Irrawaddy that key informants in Meikhtila had said organized elements from two nearby townships were fomenting violence. Similar reports emerged following heavy rioting in Arakan state last year.
A local Burmese reporter said that on 22 March, the day after the madrasa attack, she had seen the remains of six charred bodies, all of whom were dumped on street corners in downtown Meikhtila. She believes they were killed and then dragged to the street corner before being set alight. She was witness to one killing in broad daylight on the morning of 22 March.
“I saw a man, around 30 years old, walking down the street close to the clock tower [in central Meikhtila]. A group of six or seven men surrounded him and slit his throat. They then poured petrol on him and burned him.”
The reporter filmed the whole event; after the attackers told her to stop filming she jumped on a motorbike taxi and fled. The group chased her on motorbikes and when they caught up with her, began hitting her across the back with sticks, but she managed to escape.