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AP Impact: Massacre of Muslims in Myanmar ignored

Saturday - 7/6/2013, 4:36pm  ET

In this May 26, 2013 photo, a burned-out vehicle sits among debris following sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Meikhtila, Myanmar. In the town's predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Mingalar Zayone, 36 Muslims, most of them teenagers, were slaughtered on March 21, 2013, before the eyes of police and local officials who did almost nothing to stop it. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

TODD PITMAN
Associated Press

MEIKHTILA, Myanmar (AP) -- Their bones are scattered in blackened patches of earth across a hillside overlooking the wrecked Islamic boarding school they once called home.

Smashed fragments of skulls rest atop the dirt. A shattered jaw cradles half a set of teeth. And among the remains 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 were so close to being saved.

In the last hours of their lives, police had been dispatched to rescue them from a burning compound surrounded by swarms of angry men. And when they emerged cowering, hands atop their heads, they only had to make it to four police trucks waiting on the road above.

It wasn't far to go -- just one hill.

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 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 or comfort the living. Police investigators never roped this place off or collected the evidence of carnage left behind on these slopes. And despite video clips online that show mobs clubbing students to death and cheering as flames leap from corpses, not a single suspect has been convicted.

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 not to be identified by her full name 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 -- 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 the floors of a vast two-story dormitory.

Set behind the walls of a modest compound in a Muslim neighborhood of Meikhtila, the all-male madrassa attracted students from across the region whose parents hoped they would one day become Islamic scholars or clerics.

The school had a soccer pitch, a mosque and 10 teachers. It also had a reputation for discipline and insularity -- the headmaster, a strict yet kind man with a wispy beard, only allowed students outside once a week. Muslims made up about a third of Meikhtila's 100,000 inhabitants, compared with just 5 percent of Myanmar's population, and they lived peacefully with Buddhists.

The Muslims, though, were nervous after sectarian clashes in western Rakhine state in June and October last year killed hundreds and drove more than 140,000 from their homes. Both times, the madrassa shut down temporarily as a precaution.

The unrest was aimed at ethnic Rohingya Muslims, who have lived in Myanmar for generations but are still viewed by many Buddhists as foreign interlopers from Bangladesh. The hatred has since morphed into a monk-led campaign against all Muslims, seen as "enemies" of Buddhist culture.

When classes began on March 20, student gossip quickly turned to an argument on the other side of 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.

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