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Geoffrey Hiller on the Recent Violence in Myanmar March 25, 2013

Posted by Geoffrey Hiller in Burma, Myanmar.
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Editor’s note: In light of last week’s tragic events in Meiktila, Myanmar I’m posting a report from my visit there last month. All photographs by Geoffrey Hiller.

College graduates leaving a beauty salon. Meiktila

About the Photographs:

Last month while in Myanmar I spent a few days in the town of Meiktila, in the center of the country between Naypyidaw and Mandalay. The bus from Taungoo was packed with people and chickens and bales of bamboo, and stopped every couple minutes to pick up more passengers.  The distance was 150 miles but the trip took eight hours. I had called the day before to reserve a room at the main hotel but was told it was fully booked. I didn’t want to return to Yangon or go on to Mandalay, so I went to Meiktila any way. Sure enough, plenty of rooms were available.

The bus dropped me off in the Muslim part of town near a large mosque, across from a tea shop where a man was baking nan in a fiery clay oven. I took a motorcycle-taxi to the hotel, had dinner and walked around the neighborhood to get oriented my first night. After the bustle of Yangon, the small-town atmosphere was welcoming. Shop owners relaxed outside on tree-lined streets, chatting with each other.

Aung San Suu Kyi and her former husband Michael Aris visited Meiktila on their honeymoon in 1972. It’s a pleasant town on a lake as big as Inle Lake. An English-style clock tower looms over the center of town. In my three days there the only other foreigner I met was a middle-aged man from Russia who spoke to me in Spanish.

The next day I visited one of the mosques on the other side of the railway tracks near my hotel. It was Friday afternoon, the Muslim sabbath, and was filled with men attending early afternoon Namaz service. After prayers they met in the front hall to socialize. One of them offered me bananas. Down the street there was an Indian grocery store run by Sikhs who had immigrated to Burma after the British left. I couldn’t help but notice the brisk business they were doing with a diversity of customers, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim.

I began my day at the Golden Rain Tea Shop, which was on a leafy street alongside three other large cafes. I noticed a brightly lit shop that turned out to be a beauty salon. It was graduation season and everywhere in Meiktila exquisitely dressed young women were getting ready for their commencement ceremonies. Photo studios were doing a brisk business. The graduates had majored in subjects such as electrical engineering and botany. It was doubtful that they would find work in those fields, but they were still hopeful.

In one salon owned by a group of gay men from Mandalay, a bride had just had her hair styled and was waiting for the groom to arrive.


Later in the day I photographed young girls breaking rocks by hand and paving the road. This was the norm for most, who had to leave school after a few years to do manual labor or housework or sell vegetables at the market. It reminded me of how little things have changed in Burma for centuries.

Buddhist monk collecting donations

One month after I left, the media reported that fighting erupted after an argument between a Buddhist couple and Muslim owners of a gold shop. After my experience in this peaceful town, the news reports about the fighting and killing and burning of homes is unbelievable to me. I had talked with dozens of residents of Meiktila, both Buddhists and Muslims, and I never would have guessed such violence would erupt. On my last day in Meiktila I waited for the night bus to Yangon at the Asia World stop, at a Shophouse where an extended Muslim family lived. The bus from Mandalay was two hours late but the father invited me in and offered me grapes. He showed me the rows of family photographs that covered the walls. As I follow the news, I fear for him and all his family who treated a stranger with such kindness.

An eery thing that I noticed after the bus picked me up was that an elderly monk who was sitting in the front got angry and started banging his plastic water bottle on the seat. The man next to me said that the bus had broken down before and the monk was frustrated because of the delay. This scene was uncharacteristic for the Burmese, and particularly a Buddhist monk. Now I wonder if it foreshadowed the shocking events to come.



1. Doug Cosper - March 26, 2013

Thanks for sending this link, Geoff. I’m glad you put this together with text. The photo of the four girls in colorful dresses was one of my favorites from your last trip, so peaceful. Recent events lend it added depth. A friend, now BBC’s chief correspondent in Myanmar, witnessed the aftermath of the riots and saw too many scorched bodies along the roadside. I don’t know what to think of this. Certainly I don’t understand it, either that or I don’t understand Buddhism like I thought I did. But if monks can carry machetes, then Myanmar may be in for some nasty business. During my time in Myanmar, I came from the naïve perception that Buddhists and Muslims got along famously to learning that Muslims were generally treated like second-class citizens, even in Yangon. But I assumed government’s slights were the problem. Now I see it was worse than that. Muslims and Hindus coexisted for centuries in India. Then during partition by the British, both groups turned ugly beyond imagination. A French book, “Freedom at Midnight,” was frighteningly vivid on this period. So I worry on two levels, that the frustrations that come with new freedoms will cause Muslims and Buddhists to turn on each other, and that the army will do nothing until things get out of control, then seize the opportunity to crack down again. Unprofessional media have traditionally played an aggravating role during these times, such as in Bosnia and Rwanda. I pray that the journalists will mitigate for understanding instead in Burma.

2. andamanonge - March 30, 2013

Nice photographs!
I understand how people in the West are confused and puzzled by many things about Burma. It is indeed a rather “messy” place, full of smoke and mirrors, even for me, someone who was born there (I lived there for over 20 years) and in fact, some of my ancestors are from Meikhtila although that was during the days of the Burmese monarchy way before the British arrived together with labourers, soldiers and other immigrants from India (there was no Pakistan or Bangladesh in those days!). Nowadays Burma is swamped by recent “greedy business immigrants” from China trying to make a quick and dirty buck. They are the ones who control not only Burma’s economy but also most of its politics on a much larger scale (mega-projects for exploiting natural resources etc. bribing and bullying the ex-generals etc.) than those “pesky dark-skinned Muslims”. That’s what some of the über-nationalistc Buddhists, including some “monks”, especially the 969′ers (not a football team lol) think of them. Somehow, as Carol Isac pointed out, no one dares to complain about the Chinese. Even Suu Kyi “endorses” the environmentally very damaging Chinese copper mine, but is “quiet” about the Rohingya problem so go figure! I always thought she is part of the problem and not of the solution in Burma. I think most Burmese are “scared to death” of the Chinese (China-Angst), so they tend to bully people who they can bully (especially if they have a darker complexion) and suck up to people who are actually “ripping them off” at a more devastating level. Anyway, that’s my take on the land of my ancestors. Quo vadis Birmania?

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