Meiktila was quiet on Wednesday, March 20. Everyone was going about their business, including the customers in a local gold shop. Somehow an argument broke out in the shop and a customer stormed out. He returned with friends and attacked the gold shop owner who is Muslim. A crowd quickly gathered and the situation spiraled into mob violence—local Buddhists taking sides with the aggrieved customer and local Muslims siding with the shop owner.
Four days later and at least 25 people have been killed. Fearful that the religious divisions will be exploited and that the violence will spread, various politicians have called for calm and several well-known activists have travelled to Meiktila to help restore peace.
One of them was Min Ko Naing, a former political prisoner and leader of the 88 Generation Students group. He spoke exclusively to Mizzima about the riots and why he had come in person to lend a helping hand.
MIZZIMA: How can you describe the events which have taken place in Meiktila?
MIN KO NAING: Just a short time ago, we [88 Generation] expressed lingering worries that something like this would happen one day somewhere like Meiktila. Although we did not know where the incident would take place, we could guess from experience that clashes would break out somewhere. I’m 50 years old and I entered politics 25 years ago, before I spent 20 years in prison. When I enquired about the incident in Meiktila, I was told the situation was critical. So, we came to Meiktila immediately to try to help.
MIZZIMA: How did you find yourself in a position of negotiation?
MIN KO NAING: When there are people cooped up in fear it is important to rescue them. We made contact with the District Administration chief and also went to see the Regional Minister. Later we met Chief Minister Ye Myint and his party, and they asked us to try to talk to the crowds.
What is your opinion about those security forces who have been pictured just standing around watching the violence?
It seems that they didn’t know what consequences awaited them if they rescued the victims or arrested the thugs without orders from above. It is their duty is to obey orders, but this mob was an armed organization. Some affairs are complicated, but when a mob of people with weapons in their hands are killing a person for no reason right in front of the security forces’ eyes, then they shouldn’t have to waste time asking questions. As humanists, we immediately want to offer people protection. Even if we were to be sent to the gallows for protecting human life, we would do it.
MIZZIMA: What is your opinion about these rioters?
MIN KO NAING: It is all very dissatisfying. On our way into Meiktila, we saw a motorcyclist armed with a machete causing havoc at a petrol station. The police and the security officers were just standing there watching him. In fact, in that kind of situation, they don’t need to wait for their superior’s orders. According to the rule of law, if a person is unlawfully armed with a weapon, they can take action. As far as I’m concerned, they don’t need to wait for orders. Even if we were to be sent to the gallows for arresting a thug, we should do it. The police could see those armed people were thugs.
The other thing I would like to say is that some rioters jostled the police and pushed against their riot shields. The way the police treat peaceful demonstrators and the way they treat violent rioters is different.
I worry that more incidents and crises will break out. In the past, people of difference races and religions peacefully coexisted. I worry that we cannot maintain this tradition, and I worry that our country will no longer be peaceful.
MIZZIMA: How much influence does propaganda have over people?
MIN KO NAING: Those who go online and write about events should take responsibility for what they write. But, many have uploaded hateful comments and made allegations under the cloak of anonymity. Nowadays you cannot afford to close your eyes and listen to the news. Much of it is propaganda. Even the photos might be fake.
A picture of a murder elsewhere in the world can be doctored to look as if it is a murder taking place in Myanmar. We must seek confirmation before we assume. Otherwise the consequences may ruin the country. We must show wisdom and mutual respect.
MIZZIMA: What message do you have for the people?
MIN KO NAING: Taking care of one’s home and one’s family is highly important. But that doesn’t mean you have to be on the lookout for enemies built upon suspicions. After all, you might just as easily bump into someone at the market and have an argument without knowing the religion of that person. You need to analyze whether that person did something wrong intentionally or not.
Be aware of those who try to spread misinformation about other religions. Scrutinize the facts: who did what to whom? Those with evil intentions will use malicious tactics. We need to scrutinize everything. And we need to understand the difference between defending ourselves and attacking others.