ON THE MORNING OF 21 MARCH, an armed mob led by men dressed in the burgundy robes of Buddhist monks surrounded a building in the township of Mingalar Zayon, in the city of Meiktila in central Burma, also known as Myanmar. Inside were around 80 Muslims who had taken shelter there the previous day, fearing for their lives after the town witnessed an eruption of violence. Thousands of Buddhists gathered on a road overlooking the township, watching the swelling mob.
Trouble had begun in the city on the morning of 20 March, with a heated squabble between a Buddhist woman and a Muslim gold shop owner. In retaliation, later that day four Muslim men killed a Buddhist monk as he rode through a traffic intersection. As word of the killing spread, Buddhist mobs gathered and torched Muslim homes and shops.
On hearing the news of unrest in his town, 72-year-old Win Htein, one of the most prominent members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), had rushed back on 20 March from the country’s capital Naypyidaw, where he sits in the lower house of parliament. On the morning of 21 March, when Win reached the building, at around 7.30 am, he found the crowd already out of control, slaughtering the Muslims who had sought shelter inside. “Each time a Muslim was killed, the crowd cheered and applauded,” he recounted. “The mob dragged people and killed them with swords and bamboo sticks. During the half hour I stayed there, seven people were killed before my eyes. I couldn’t do anything, they wouldn’t listen!” Twenty Muslims were killed by the mob on that morning, Win said, and the police did nothing to stop the slaughter. In all, the clashes in Meiktila over those days claimed more than 40 lives.