MEIKHTILA, Burma (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 Burma 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 Burma’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 Burma’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 [Burma], 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 Burma’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 Burma 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.
That afternoon, several Muslim men yanked a monk off a motorcycle and burned him to death. Buddhist mobs in turn torched Muslim businesses and 12 of the city’s 13 mosques.
In Mingalar Zayone, some teachers skipped courses. Then classes were canceled altogether.
Students rushed to the dormitory’s second floor and gazed out of the windows, in shock. Black and gray columns of smoke were rising in the air.
At dinner a couple of hours later, the sound of a teacher weeping filled the hall. His family home had been burned with his parents inside it. Some students pushed their food away.
As the sun slunk in a hazy sky, a Buddhist government administrator came to the gate of the madrassa and took the headmaster aside.
“You need to get your students out of here,” he warned. “You need to hide. The mobs are coming — tonight.”
At sunset prayers, the headmaster told everyone to collect their valuables, their money, their ID cards — and prepare to leave. He asked them to remove their head caps, Islamic dress and anything that might identify them as Muslim.
He never explained why. He didn’t have to.
“If they try to destroy this place, we’ll do our best to stop them,” he said. “But whatever happens, we will not let you die.”
After dark, they crept deep into a swampy jungle of tall grass a block away called the Wat Hlan Taw, and the tall reeds swallowed the school’s refugees whole.
Most were students and teachers. But at least 10 women and their children were also among them, relatives or residents too terrified to stay in their own homes.
They sat down in the mud. Nobody said a word.
Soon, they heard the mob approaching — dozens, maybe hundreds of voices, a cacophony of menace and anger that grew louder by the second.
The voices were at the gate of their madrassa. And then they were inside, kicking in doors and smashing windows.
In the darkness of the Wat Hlan Taw, a teacher named Shafee with a stomach ailment reached for his wife’s palm and squeezed it hard.
“If they find us,” he whispered nervously, “you know I won’t be able to run.”
“Don’t worry,” his wife, Thida, replied, cradling their 3-year-old son in her arms. “We’ll be together, every step. I’ll never leave you.”
As the long night wore on, the madrassa burned down.
At 4 a.m., Buddhist prayer gongs rang out, and the mobs began shining flashlights into the Wat Hlan Taw. Some Buddhists fired rocks into the bush with homemade slingshots.
“Come out, Kalars!” they shouted, using a derogatory word for Muslims.
The Muslims ran to a neighboring compound, owned by a wealthy Muslim businessman. Some tore down a bamboo fence to get inside.
The mobs were not far behind.
Thida heard a boy screaming behind her, a student who had been trying to call his mother on his cell phone.
He had waited just a few seconds too long to run.
As the first rays of dawn touched Mingalar Zayone, Koko, a quiet, heavy-set 21-year-old student, peered over the compound’s thin fence and felt numb. Men clutching machetes and sticks were girding for a fight outside.
Hundreds more were gathering on a road running across a huge embankment that shadowed the neighborhood’s western edge. The embankment had always been there, but now it seemed to seal them inside the bottom of a huge, oppressive bowl from which they could not escape.
Koko could almost feel the blood draining from his cheeks. He felt weak, no longer human.
“We’re trapped,” he thought, “like animals.”
Some students were frantically making calls for help — to parents, to police. Some were chanting loudly. Others were scouring the property for anything they could use to defend themselves — wooden boards, rocks the gangs outside had thrown at them.
By the time an opposition lawmaker, Win Htein, arrived around 7:30 a.m., dozens of helmeted riot police were on the scene. The security forces, equipped with rifles and gray shields, had formed lines to keep the Buddhist hordes away from the Muslims.
Win Htein saw the head of police and the district commissioner standing nearby, and the bodies of two dead Muslims on the edge of the Wat Hlan Taw. Over the next 45 minutes, he watched in horror as mobs of men chased five more students out of the bush, one by one, and hacked or bludgeoned them to death in broad daylight.
As stone-faced police officers stood idle just steps away, crowds cheered like spectators in a Roman gladiator show.
“They must be wiped out!” one woman shouted.
“Kill them all!” shouted another. “We must show Burmese courage!”
Win Htein felt nauseous. He wanted to vomit. In two decades of prison and torture under brutal military rule, he had never seen anything like this.
When he tried to convince people in the crowds to spare the Muslims, the mobs began threatening him. One Buddhist man demanded bitterly: “Why are you trying to protect them? Are you a Muslim lover?”
An officer advised Win Htein to leave.
Shortly after, a monk and four policemen offered to escort the trapped Muslims on foot to several police vehicles on top of the embankment.
“We’ll protect you,” one officer said. “But the students must stop chanting. They must put down their weapons” — their sticks and stones.
As the teachers debated what to do, they realized their time had run out. The crowds were flinging long bamboo staves wrapped with burning fabric over the fence like giant matchsticks. The compound was on fire, belching orange flame and black smoke into the air.
The group emerged slowly with their hands behind their heads, like prisoners of war.
Police led them down a narrow dirt track — a long line of desperate people, crouching in terror. Almost immediately, they were stoned by livid residents of a tiny Buddhist neighborhood who attempted to block their way.
What followed was a gantlet from hell, an obstacle course that came with its own set of macabre rules: Do not run, or they will chase you. Do not fall, or you may never get back up. Do not stop, or you may die.
Police fired several rounds into the air, but the crowds attacked anyway. A teacher was knocked to the ground, and panicked students stepped over his body, sprawled face down in the dirt.
Koko saw a friend hit across the forehead with a hoe. When he tried to stand again, five men with knives dragged him off.
The mobs then attacked Koko with machetes from behind, slicing six palm-sized gashes into the flesh of his back. Blood stained his yellow shirt. He fell and blacked out.
One officer, struck in the face by a rock, apparently by accident, shot a Buddhist man in the leg. The crack of gunfire woke Koko, who realized he had been left for dead and leapt to his feet to catch up with the group.
As they moved inside the Buddhist neighborhood on the path to the trucks, police ordered the Muslims to squat down.
Crowds taunted and slapped them. Several women forced them to bow their heads and press their hands together in prayer like Buddhists. And according to testimony gathered by Physicians for Human Rights, they also shoved pork, which is prohibited in Islam, into the mouths of the Muslims.
One man swung a motorcycle exhaust pipe into a student’s head. Another hit him with a motorcycle chain. A third stabbed him in the chest.
“Don’t kill them here,” yelled one monk. “Their ghosts will haunt this place. Kill them up on the road.”
The monks said the police should round up the women and children and let them go first. When Thida refused to let go of her husband, a Buddhist man shoved a palm in his face and forced them apart. Another man she recognized tried to grab her 3-year-old.
“He’s still breast-feeding. Leave him alone!” she shouted, pulling away.
The man then grabbed her 9-year-old, but pushed him back in disgust when he wailed.
Amid the confusion, one Buddhist woman hurriedly waved two of Thida’s teenage daughters into her home to protect them, in an act of kindness. Both would be reunited with Thida several days later, unharmed.
As Thida and about 10 women and children climbed the hill, several riot police pushed back the stick-wielding crowds around them with open palms. A video reviewed by the AP records a man trying to dissuade the mobs, saying: “Don’t do this. There are kids there as well.”
But the violence continued.
Buddhists still clearing the Wat Hlan Taw forced a thin 17-year-old student named Ayut Kahn out into an open patch of low grass. In a scene captured on video by at least two different unidentified people, the boy — a Meikhtila native with a stutter who loved soccer — was struck 24 times by nine people with long sticks and bloody machetes. Five blows were from a monk.
“Look! Look!” one Buddhist bystander shouted from the top of the embankment as the student was murdered. “The police are heading down there, but they aren’t doing anything.”
The last time Thida saw her husband, he was struggling to climb the hilltop road where she waited anxiously beside police. Two teachers were by his side, their arms locked in his. Mobs swarmed the steep embankment between them.
Shafee’s face was pale. He had never looked this way — so exhausted, so drained, so helpless.
Across the hillside, Thida could hear the cries of hate.
“Kill the Kalar! Don’t leave any of them behind!”
“Clean them up! They are just dirty things!”
Somewhere below, several students tried to make a run for it. Crowds chased them.
Somebody pummeled 14-year-old Abu Bakar across the cheek with a bamboo stick. Somebody else sliced the back of 20-year-old Naeem’s legs with daggers. Yet another clubbed Arif — the teacher who had wept at dinner the night before — to the ground.
Police stood on both sides of the hill watching, unmoved. When a boy sitting with them at the bottom of the slope looked up, an officer slapped his head and shouted: “Keep your eyes down!”
A frantic monk waved a multicolored Buddhist flag screaming for the killing to stop. “This is not the Buddhist way!”
The crowd backed away briefly, but police left the wounded behind.
One video clip of the moments that followed shows seven Muslim men curled on the ground beneath a grove of rain trees. The faces of at least three are heavily covered in blood. A man in a green jacket swings a bamboo stave down on the wounded with all his might.
The camera pans to another group of three other crumpled men. One is Shafee, who is lying face down, pulling his legs in toward his stomach.
“Oh, you want to fight back?” a voice says, laughing.
A grainy video filmed shortly after shows flames leaping from a pile of 12 charred corpses in the same spot, and onlookers backing away from a smoky body rolling down the hill. Another video shows crowds cheering.
Thida could only smell the burning flesh. She hugged the leg of a police officer standing beside her and asked: “Hey, brother. Please. Please. What is happening to us?”
“Shut up, woman,” the officer replied. “Keep your head down. Don’t you know you can die here, too?”
In all the mayhem, several dozen police reinforcements arrived to escort the remaining Muslims to the hilltop and load them onto trucks.
As they pulled away, Koko knew he would never return to Meikhtila.
“There is nothing left of our lives here,” he said to himself. “There is only Allah.”
The trucks took the traumatized survivors to a police station, where they were offered water, and, by at least one officer, an apology.
In all, about 120 Muslims survived — among them, 90 students and four teachers. They stayed several days at a police station before being bused to another town to join their families.
The dead totaled 32 students and four teachers, according to the headmaster, who cross-checked their deaths with families and witnesses.
The head of state security in the region, Col. Aung Kyaw Moe, who ordered the rescue operation, said “10 or 15” died on the way. But video obtained by the AP, shot by unidentified witnesses touring the area after the killings, contradicts that claim. Two videos alone indicate at least 28 people died, most of them blackened corpses with fists and arms reaching into the air; one is decapitated.
When the people filming pass one body, a voice can be heard saying: “Hey, is that a child?”
“No, he’s just short,” another replies, chuckling.
The police present that day were the only ones with rifles and guns, which would have been no match for the crude weapons carried by the mobs. But while they rescued more than 100 Muslims, they did not stop the massacre of dozens of others.
“They were of two minds. We could see that,” the headmaster said. “Some of them tried to help us … but in the end, they all watched us die.”
Win Htein, the lawmaker, said there were two explanations: Either the “police didn’t get any order from above (to shoot), or they got the order from above not to do anything.”
Aung Kyaw Moe, the regional security chief, insisted he had given authorization to fire. But he said police didn’t shoot because “doing so could have angered the crowds and made the situation even worse.”
He said even though 200 police were deployed to the area, the crowds outnumbered them, and Muslims died because “some of them tried to run.”
“They scattered and our forces could not follow every one of them,” he said. “They had to take care of the rest of the people they were guarding. … On the front lines, some things cannot be clearly explained.”
During a tense 50-minute interview, Aung Kyaw Moe said he was “satisfied” with the job police had done.
But he grew increasingly agitated, saying five times that it was “inappropriate” to ask for details because “you’re not writing a novel, you’re not making a movie … you don’t need to know.”
The first people prosecuted for the violence in Meikhtila were not the Buddhist mobs. The first were Muslims.
On April 11, a court sentenced the gold shop owner and two employees to 14-year jail terms for theft and causing grievous bodily harm. On May 21, the same court sentenced seven Muslims to terms ranging from two years to life for their roles in the killing of the monk the day the unrest began.
On June 28, a Buddhist man was convicted of the murder of a Muslim elsewhere in Meikhtila and sentenced to seven years in jail, according to state prosecutor Nyan Myint. He said 14 Buddhists have been charged and are on trial for the Mingalar Zayone killings, some for murder, but none has yet been convicted.
Justice “is a matter of time,” he said. “The courts are proceeding with the trials and have no prejudice or bias against any group.”
Aung Kyaw Moe, the security chief, said all those arrested were residents of Meikhtila, but he gave no other details.
No police have been reprimanded.
Similar patterns of justice have played out in other towns.
After Buddhist mobs burned several villages in the central town of Okkan in April, the first convicted was a Muslim woman accused of starting it by “insulting religion.” She had knocked over the bowl of a novice monk. Muslims say it was an accident.
And after more Buddhist mobs rampaged through the eastern city of Lashio in May, setting Muslim shops alight, the first convicted was the Muslim man authorities say triggered the unrest by dousing a Buddhist woman with diesel fuel and severely burning her.
One Muslim man was killed in each incident, but no one has been prosecuted.
After the massacre in Meikhtila, the corpses rotted for at least two and a half days before the government sent workers to haul them away, some on garbage trucks. The remains were taken to Meikhtila’s main cemetery, where they were simply burned again in an open patch of red dirt with used car tires and gasoline and left for stray dogs to pick through.
Authorities say they did not hand the bodies back to the relatives of the dead because they were too badly burned to be identified. But families of those slain say they were never even asked, and never given the chance to bury their loved ones according to Islamic rites.
No Muslim families have dared visit the cemetery or return to the massacre site.
The mood in the neighborhood is still hostile to outsiders. When AP journalists visited the area, residents stared silently.
One barefoot woman washing clothes beside a well where a pile of charred corpses were dumped claimed she had no idea what happened that day, because she wasn’t there.
Her friend looked up and said: “Tell him what started it. Tell him about the gold shop, the monk who was killed.”
Ma Myint shook her head, squinting up briefly in the direction of the hilltop.
Those bones “mean nothing to me,” she said.
The school’s headmaster pulls out a single sheet of blue-lined paper from his pocket. On it, handwritten, are the names and ages and hometowns of the dead.
What bothers him the most isn’t the decision he made to take his students into the Wat Hlan Taw, or the nightmares he has had since. It’s that those who were slaughtered could have been saved.
Most of those beaten to the ground did not die immediately, he says.
“Had anybody stepped in to help them even then, to push back the mobs, to pick them up and take them to the hospital — they could have lived,” he says.
He has told many of the 90 students who survived to lie low and not testify for fear of reprisal. He dreams of gathering them together again and rebuilding his school elsewhere, but he is too afraid of sectarian violence flaring anew to say where or when.
“Where is safe in this [Burma]?” he says. “Who will protect us?”
On March 21, the headmaster urged his students not to fight back.
“Next time, we will defend ourselves,” he says quietly, “because we know that nobody else will.”