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On July 3, 2014, U Soe Min, a Muslim man, was walking to morning prayers (Fajr) at a nearby mosque when a man with a machete struck him dead with a deep blow to his skull. The 51-year-old Mandalay resident, who ran a bicycle shop, was one of two innocent victims that day of communal violence sparked by reports – later proven to be false – that a Buddhist woman had been raped by two Muslim brothers.
Daw Phyu Win at her home in Mandalay. (Stuart Alan Becker/The Myanmar Times)
Hours after U Soe Min’s killing, his mother Daw Phyu Win, widow Daw Tin Tin Kyaw and two young daughters spoke toThe Myanmar Times at their home, grief etched into their faces along with disbelief that a man who had such friendly relations with all his neighbours, regardless of their religion, could have met such a fate.
In late February, eight months after the riots, Daw Phyu Win spoke again – about the family’s long history in Mandalay, how they were coping with the loss of her youngest son, and their fears for the future of the city’s Muslim community.
Speaking in excellent English – as a young woman she taught English at the city’s Catholic Don Bosco School – 79-year-old Daw Phyu Win described how she was born in Mandalay of a family that traces its history back 400 years to Amarapura, a former royal capital just south of where Mandalay sits today. Her ancestors had been servants to the last line of Burmese kings and accompanied the royal family when the court moved to Mandalay.
Reflecting on the communal violence last July – in which a Buddhist volunteer ambulance worker was also killed – she said it was the worst time of her whole life, even worse than the Japanese wartime occupation.
She thinks Muslim people in Myanmar are going to be safe and secure during the run-up to national elections in November, but she worries what will happen afterward.
“For the time being, there is no problem, but I think in the future they may do bad things again. After the election we don’t know what will happen to Muslim people – but right now because of the coming election we are staying nicely,” she said.
“I love the Myanmar land and the Myanmar people,” she said. “But political people change and there are very good Buddhists, but there are also cruel people who have power.
“Good Buddhists have no power; some bad ones have power. All Muslims are afraid of what may happen after the elections – that we may get trouble again.”
Daw Phyu Win said all of her Buddhist neighbours in Mandalay had treated her and her family with great kindness during her whole life – as an undergraduate at Mandalay University, running a middle school with her late husband until it was nationalised under the military rule of Ne Win, and sending her own children to the Don Bosco school even though it was Catholic.
She has vivid memories as a girl living under Japanese occupation, when her family evacuated with others to villages beyond Mandalay Hill, scared of the cruelty of the advancing army.
“When the Japanese came they were very rude and violent. [They] kicked the children. We hated them,” she said. She remembers at the age of seven smoking her first cigarette, offered to her by a black American soldier as allied forces retook Burma.
Above all she remembers that everyone took care of each other, regardless of their religion.
She now lives in a property bought by her grandfather in 1916 – an old brick Burmese-style structure that was destroyed in the war and rebuilt by U Soe Min. She has leased out the space her late son used for his bicycle shop, using the income to support herself and U Soe Min’s widow and daughters.
Contacted again yesterday by The Myanmar Times, Daw Phyu Win declined to comment on last week’s sentencing of the woman who filed the fake rape report and four others to 21 years in prison.
“What happened to my son is fate given by God,” she said. “We can’t change our fate.”