Authorities Deny Protection for Muslim IDPs Returning to Homes in Meikhtila

By Zue Zue 5 October 2016

In Mandalay Division’s Meikhtila, Muslims who lost their houses in racially motivated violence in 2013 attempted in vain to return to their wards on Saturday after authorities ordered them to leave internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps.

Authorities operated six IDP camps—three each for Buddhist and Muslim IDPs. After the riots, there were around 600 displaced Buddhists, while the number of Muslim IDPs numbered more than 13,000. Currently, more than 200 IDPs from around 80 families remain in Meikhtila.

In the early months of 2015, the authorities began to shut down IDP camps one by one, until the last camp, located at a district sports ground, was shut at the end of the year.

With nowhere to go, some remained on the sports grounds. Last week, district and township administrators published a notice, warning that those who did not move from the sports grounds could be sued.

After the order was issued, some IDPs decided to attempt a return to their homes in Yan Myo Aung and Mingalar Zayone wards, representatives from the Meikhtila-based Htila Thuka Thamagi Interfaith Association told The Irrawaddy.

But Muslim IDPs and current residents of the wards got into an argument after the latter stopped the former from building huts in the places of their original houses, lawyer U Aung Thein, secretary of Htila Thuka Thamagi said.

“Four [Muslim] families built huts on their land plots in Mingalar Zayone ward. Then some people came and stopped it, saying, ‘we don’t allow you Muslims to live here.’ They had an argument, but without swearing or fighting,” he explained.

As the argument continued, U Aung Thein said the township police force and administrative officials arrived at the scene and said they could not guarantee the security of the IDPs. They left on Monday.

Ko Bilar, a volunteer helping Muslim IDPs said, “They were evicted by the residents and treated as if they were trespassing on other people’s property. Still, we could stand it. But then the authorities asked them to move on the excuse that there is a weak rule of law.”

“The [township] administrator did not give a clear answer, but said he could not provide security. It has been years [since the violence]. So, there is still no stability?” said Ko Bilar.

The Irrawaddy contacted the Meikhtila Township administration and police station several times, but was unable to obtain a comment.

Muslim IDPs with house ownership documents say they sent several requests to relevant authorities under the previous Thein Sein government asking for permission and protection in returning to their homes. Meanwhile, while they were in IDP camps, U Aung Thein said other local residents dismantled their houses—even insofar as removing the bricks from the structures.

The interfaith association has urged the Muslim community to exercise restraint and to address the conflict “peacefully” in line with law in order to avoid unnecessary problems during the reform process under the new government. The association also suggested that they express their grievances to President U Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

“They have nowhere to live if they are no longer allowed to live within the sports grounds. Again, in the long run, it is not possible for three or more families to live in a tent. Concerned authorities should handle these problems in line with fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution,” he said.

Meanwhile, sources say that the Muslim community has lost trust in the regional government for their failure to address the crisis. U Aung Thein is concerned that tensions might arise if the division’s chief minister fails to take decisive action on the IDPs’ behalf.

More than 40 people were killed during the Meikhtila riots in March of 2013, which were initially sparked by an argument 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, it was reported that a group of Muslim men had killed a Buddhist monk, and mobs of Buddhists responded with anti-Muslim riots. The violence spread throughout Mandalay and Pegu divisions.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.