from Myanmar's Enemy Within

The first wave: the murder, the smoke and the ruins


In Sittwe, on the west coast of Myanmar, there is a road that runs out of the town centre, bound towards the vast blue of the Bay of Bengal. On either side, the road is lined with buildings, one or two storeys high, some made of brick, others wood – teashops, houses, barbers. But the road then hits a straight, and the buildings abruptly stop. In their place come fields – scrubby, and dotted with small wooden huts. They are oddly spaced apart, as if built in haste and not to last. From the road, you can look south between the dwellings to a distant line of trees that mark the neighbourhood limit. The area is called Nasi, but it bears little resemblance to the Nasi of old. The wooden huts, occupied by squatters and interspersed among unkempt bush, have replaced what used to be clusters of houses and shops connected by narrow lanes and alleyways. There had been eleven sub-quarters here – some housed Buddhists, some Muslims; others were mixed. In the centre, beside the road, sat a high school where students from all over Nasi would study together.

On the morning of 12 June 2012, Ko Myat had been in his village ten kilometres north of Sittwe. The forty-three-year-old was, like the majority of men in Par Da Lek, a long-time fisherman in the nearby tributaries that feed into the Bay of Bengal. He had been divorced from his wife several years before, and now lived alone in a stilted wooden house towards the back of the village, past the market and the dusty pitch where children would play football. As far back as he knew the village had been only Buddhist, but Muslims would come here to trade. They too fished in the nearby creeks, and would move from one village market to another each day until the morning’s catch was sold.

That month of June hadn’t thus far been what Ko Myat would describe as normal. In the days before 12 June, talk had swept through the village of fits of violence underway not so far away. These weren’t newspaper reports, but rumours that passed from mouth to mouth. They said that Rakhine, the Buddhist ethnic group to whom he belonged, were being attacked. It was the Muslims.

Par Da Lek hadn’t seen any of this violence, but nonetheless there were strange rumblings in the village. Over the two days prior to 12 June 2012, men had been shuttled on buses to downtown Sittwe. Ko Myat would watch them go in wave after wave. They were goaded onto the buses and away, he said, by the village administrator, the chief authority there. For those two days, he had stood at the entrance to the village, where the road rises up on a bank above the busy marketplace. Buses would come and go; the men who stood there waiting empty handed would be given weapons – sticks and machetes – before climbing aboard.

The village was six miles from the nearest Muslim community and he hadn’t worried about similar running battles erupting closer to home.


Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ is published by Zed Books (2017).

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