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    Myanmar government struggles to contain anti-Muslim hostility

    Myanmar Muslims living in
    Malaysia show banners and placards during a demonstration against the killings
    of Muslims in Meikhtila, in Kuala Lumpur March 25, 2013. Hundreds of troops
    kept an uneasy calm in central Myanmar on Saturday after martial law was
    imposed to quell three days of bloody unrest between Buddhists and Muslims that
    is testing the country’s nascent democracy. Reuters /Bazuki Muhammad
    By Aye Win Myint
    Reuters
    March 25, 2013 

    MEIKHTILA, Myanmar
    (Reuters) – Myanmar’s government is struggling to contain anti-Muslim violence
    that touched the outskirts of the capital, Naypyitaw, at the weekend and forced
    it to send troops to patrol the streets in the town where the recent trouble started.

    Four houses and a small
    mosque in Tatkon township on the northern edges of Naypyitaw were set ablaze
    late on Sunday, a civil servant in the capital told Reuters on Monday.

    Communal tension, stifled
    under half a century of army rule, has resurfaced since President Thein Sein’s
    reformist government took office in 2011.

    It has released dissidents
    and relaxed media censorship, but was also criticised for failing to quell last
    year’s violence in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. Official figures say 110 people
    were killed and 120,000 were left homeless, most of them Rohingya Muslims.

    The latest unrest began
    last Wednesday in Meikhtila, 130 km (80 miles) north of the capital and sparked
    by an argument between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owners of a gold shop
    that escalated into rioting in which 32 people died, official figures show.

    Police were criticised in
    the media and by local people for making little effort to halt the violence as
    ethnic Burmese Buddhists including monks stalked the streets armed with swords
    and knives.

    More than 2,000 people are
    now living in makeshift camps, but calm has been restored by the military, sent
    in on Friday when the government declared martial law in the area.

    “I think I am safe now
    and I can reopen my shop because of soldiers guarding the town,”
    52-year-old Khin Mya told Reuters. “Soon after soldiers arrived, we got
    peace. The situation had been very, very dangerous in previous days.”

    Vijay Nambiar, U.N. special
    adviser on Myanmar, told Reuters after visiting the area on Sunday that the
    government had said to him it would not hesitate to send troops in elsewhere if
    needed.

    In a statement, the United
    Nations warned the sectarian unrest could endanger the reforms initiated by
    Thein Sein.

    “Religious leaders and
    other community leaders must also publicly call on their followers to abjure
    violence, respect the law and promote peace,” Nambiar said in the
    statement.

    State-run MRTV said on
    Sunday police had arrested 35 people in Meikhtila and two other townships in
    connection with the violence.

    In one incident late on
    Saturday, unknown assailants torched more than 40 homes, 38 belonging to
    Muslims, in Ywadan village in Yamaethin township, said Soe Lwin, a local
    official. The village is 66 km (41 miles) south of Meikhtila.

    “At about 8 p.m.,
    around 100 people turned up shouting ‘Let’s burn it down, let’s burn it down,’
    and started destroying our house first,” said a 35-year-old shop owner in
    Ywadan, asking not to be named.

    “It didn’t look like
    they were outsiders. I think it’s the people from this area,” he said,
    speaking through the fence of a school where Muslims had taken refuge. “I
    could feel the way they looked at us had changed since Meikhtila
    happened.”

    Tension was high in certain
    parts of Yangon, the former capital and Myanmar’s biggest city. Police were
    stationed outside mosques on Sunday evening.

    Myanmar is a predominately
    Buddhist country, but about 5 percent of its 60 million people are Muslims.

    (Reporting by Aung Hla Tun
    in Yangon, Soe Zeya Tun in Ywadan and Andrew R.C. Marshall in Bangkok; Writing
    by Paul Carsten; Editing by Alan Raybould)