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Deadly violence between Myanmar’s Buddhists, Muslims spreads to 3 more towns in heartland

Residents ride a
motorcycle past a burning building in riot-hit Meiktila, central Myanmar on
March 22, 2013.
Associated Press
March 25, 2013
YANGON, Myanmar –
Anti-Muslim mobs rampaged through three more towns in Myanmar’s predominantly
Buddhist heartland over the weekend, destroying mosques and burning dozens of
homes despite government efforts to stop the nation’s latest outbreak of
sectarian violence from spreading.
President Thein Sein
declared a state of emergency in central Myanmar on Friday and deployed army
troops to the worst hit city, Meikhtila, where 32 people were killed and 10,000
mostly Muslim residents were displaced. But even as soldiers imposed order
there after several days of anarchy that saw armed Buddhists torch the city’s
Muslim quarters, anti-Muslim unrest has spread south toward the capital,
Naypyitaw.
A Muslim resident of
Tatkone, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Meikhtila, said by telephone that
a group of about 20 men ransacked a one-story brick mosque there late Sunday
night, pelting it with stones and smashing windows before soldiers fired shots
to drive them away. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of security
concerns, he said he believed the perpetrators were not from Tatkone.
A day earlier,
another mob burned down a mosque and 50 homes in the nearby town of Yamethin,
state television reported. Another mosque and several buildings were also
destroyed the same day in Lewei, farther south. It was not immediately clear
who was behind the violence, and no clashes or casualties were reported in the
three towns.
The upsurge in
sectarian unrest is casting a shadow over Thein Sein’s administration as it struggles
to bring democratic reform the Southeast Asian country after half a century of
army rule officially ended two years ago this month.
Two similar episodes
rocked western Rakhine state last year, pitting ethnic Rakhine Buddhists
against Rohingya Muslims in bloodshed that killed hundreds and drove 100,000
from their homes.
The Rohingya are
widely denigrated as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and most are denied
passports as a result. The Muslim population of central Myanmar, by contrast,
is mostly of Indian origin and does not face the same questions over
nationality.
The emergence of
sectarian conflict beyond Rakhine state is an ominous development, one that
indicates anti-Muslim sentiment has intensified nationwide since last year and,
if left unchecked, could spread.
Sectarian and ethnic
tensions are not new in Myanmar.
Muslims account for
about four percent of the nation’s roughly 60 million people, and during the
long era of authoritarian rule, military governments twice drove out hundreds of
thousands of Rohingya, while smaller clashes had occurred elsewhere. About one
third of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities that practice
Christianity or animism, and most have waged wars against the government for
autonomy.
Analysts say racism
has also played a role. Unlike the ethnic Burman majority, most Muslims in
Myanmar are of South Asian descent, populations with darker skin that migrated
to Myanmar centuries ago from what are now parts of India and Bangladesh.
The latest bloodshed
“shows that inter-communal tensions in Myanmar are not just limited to the
Rakhine and Rohingya in northern Rakhine state,” said Jim Della-Giacoma of
the International Crisis Group. “Myanmar is a country with dozens of
localized fault lines and grievances that were papered over during the
authoritarian years that we are just beginning to see and understand. It is a
paradox of transitions that greater freedom does allow these local conflicts to
resurface.”
“If a democratic
state is the nation’s goal, they need to find a place for all its people as
equal citizens,” Della-Giacoma said. “Given the country’s history, it
won’t be easy.”
The government has
put the total death toll in Meikhtila at 32, and authorities say they have
detained at least 35 people allegedly involved in arson and violence in the
region.
On Sunday, Vijay
Nambiar, the U.N. secretary-general’s special adviser on Myanmar, toured
Meikhtila and called on the government to punish those responsible.
He also visited some
of the nearly 10,000 people driven from their homes in the unrest. Most of the
displaced are minority Muslims, who appeared to have suffered the brunt of the
violence as armed Buddhist mobs roamed city.
Nambiar said he was
encouraged to learn that some individuals in both communities had helped each
other and that religious leaders were now advocating peace. He said the people
he spoke to believe the violence “was the work of outsiders,” but he
gave no details.
“There is a
certain degree of fear and anxiety among the people, but there is no
hatred,” Nambiar said after visiting both groups on Sunday and promising
the United Nations would provide as much help as it can to get the city back on
its feet. “They feel a sense of community and that it is a very good thing
because they have worked together and lived together.”
But he added:
“It is important to catch the perpetrators. It is important that they be
caught and punished.”
In Meikthila, at
least five mosques were set ablaze from Wednesday to Friday. The majority of
homes and shops burned in the city also belonged to Muslims, and most of the
displaced are Muslim. Dozens of corpses were piled in the streets, some of them
charred beyond recognition.
“The city is
calm and some shops have reopened, but many still live in fear. Some still dare
not return to their homes,” said Win Htein, an opposition lawmaker from
the city.
Myanma Ahlin, a
state-run newspaper, carried a statement from Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and
Hindu leaders expressing sorrow for the loss of life and property and calling
on Buddhist monks to help ease tensions.
“We would like
to call upon the government to provide sufficient security and to protect the
displaced people and to investigate and take legal measures as urgently as
possible,” the statement from the Interfaith Friendship Organization said.
Muslims, who make up
about 30 percent of Meikhtila’s 100,000 inhabitants, have stayed off the
streets since their shops and homes were burned and Buddhist mobs armed with
machetes and swords began roaming the city.
Little appeared to be
left of some palm tree-lined neighborhoods, where the legs of victims could be
seen poking out from smoldering masses of twisted debris and ash. Broken glass,
charred cars and motorcycles and overturned tables littered roads beside rows
of burned-out homes and shops, evidence of the widespread chaos that swept the
town.
Chaos began Wednesday
after an argument broke out between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist
customers. Once news spread that a Muslim man had killed a Buddhist monk,
Buddhist mobs rampaged through a Muslim neighborhood and the situation quickly
spiraled out of control.
Residents and
activists said the police did little to stop the rioters or reacted too slowly,
allowing the violence to escalate.
___
Associated Press
writers Todd Pitman and Grant Peck contributed to this report from Bangkok.