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Thousands of Muslims, who were uprooted during religious riots in central Burma’s Meikhtila in March, have begun to return home despite ongoing hostility and fears for their safety.
“Tears came out of my eyes when I got back home,” says Thidar Hla, 43, who is back on her street in Meikhtila with her family for the first time in more than a month.
She is among some 4,000 Muslims, whose houses survived the March riots and who have slowly begun to trickle back into the city since the start of May.
It’s the first time since the violence – in which more than 800 homes, shops and mosques were razed to the ground by Buddhist mobs – that large numbers of Muslims have begun to return to Meikhtila.
But interviews with local Muslims and Buddhists show that there is still a lot of communal tension.
“We don’t really have trust right now,” said Aung Khin, a 50-year-old Buddhist man. “The Muslims are afraid to trust us and we are afraid to trust them.”
Aung Khin is married with five children between the ages of five and 24. He says he used to buy meat from a Muslim butcher, but now he refuses because he is afraid that his food might be poisoned. He adds that his relationships with old Muslim friends have been strained ever since the riots.
”Before this I had [Muslim] friends but after this we don’t really have to talk,” he said. “It isn’t necessary for us to talk with each other at all, so we don’t communicate with each other at all.”
Three days vicious religious violence flared on 20 March, after an argument in a Muslim owned gold shop escalated and a Buddhist customer was assaulted. But things spiralled out of control when a Buddhist monk was killed.
Soon mobs descended on the streets of Meikhtila. Witnesses claim that police stood by and watched as businesses and mosques were burned down. People were beaten and set on fire. The rioting finally stopped when the military was called in three days later.
But by then, at least 43 people had been killed and nearly 13,000 people displaced. Muslims were heavily outnumbered and suffered the bulk of the casualties.
The unrest in Meikhtila sparked a wave of religious riots across central Burma – often led by Buddhists monks – devastating dozens of townships and villages and spreading fear among Burma’s Muslim minority.
Aung Khin says all Muslims are being blamed for the monk’s murder, even though only a small number were involved with it. Currently six men are on trial and face the death penalty for the killing.
“We respect monks and they have killed a monk so we are always going to remember that in our hearts,” said Aung Khin. “Because one of their group did wrong the whole group got blamed for it.”
Soldiers and police are stationed on the roads of Meikhtila’s Muslim quarters.
“The soldiers are standing guard on each end of the street, so I can sleep soundly,” said Thidar Hlar. But as a precaution, her family is only buying their food from Muslim owned shops. She has also instructed her two kids to stay close to home.
“I was able to do freely whatever I wanted before,” said her daughter, 19-year-old local college student, Hnin Ei Phyu. “But now I don’t really have that freedom anymore.”
Hnin Ei Phyu said she has Buddhist friends at school but says they haven’t tried to contact each other since the riots.
Little has been rebuilt in Meikhtila since March. Across the city, skeletal remains of scorched homes hover eerily amid rubble and ash, although the government has pledged to replace all of the houses thatwere destroyed.
There are people in the community, including Ye Myint Aung, a Buddhist, who are optimistic that relationships between Buddhists and Muslims can be rebuilt quickly. “I welcome the Muslims back,” he said.
But several Buddhists, who refused to give their names and live in neighbourhoods where Muslim homes were burned down, say that they don’t want them back in their neighbourhoods.
The chief justice of the Mandalay region, Ye Aung Myint, told DVB that the final decision on where new homes will be built is yet to be made.
Meanwhile, thousands of displaced Muslims continue to linger in camps outside of the city, waiting to hear when they can return.