MEIKHTILA, Myanmar (AP) — The top UN envoy to Myanmar on Sunday toured a central city destroyed in the country's worst explosion of Buddhist-Muslim violence this year, calling on the government to punish those responsible for a tragedy that left dozens of corpses piled in the streets, some of them charred beyond recognition.
Vijay Nambiar, the U.N. secretary-general's special adviser on Myanmar, also visited some of the nearly 10,000 people driven from their homes after sectarian unrest shook the city of Meikhtila for several days this week. 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 bravely 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."
Nambiar's visit came one day after the army took control of the city to enforce a tense calm after President Thein Sein ordered a state of emergency here.
Late Saturday, the government put the death toll in the violence at 32, according to state television, which reported that bodies had been found as authorities began cleaning up the area.
The bloodshed marked the first sectarian unrest to spread into Myanmar's heartland since two similar episodes rocked western Rakhine state last year. It is the latest challenge to efforts to reform the Southeast Asian country after the long-ruling military ceded power two years ago to a civilian government led by retired army officers.
There are concerns the violence could spread, and the bloodshed has raised questions about the government's failure to rein in anti-Muslim sentiment in a predominantly Buddhist country where even monks have armed themselves and taken advantage of newfound freedoms to stage anti-Muslim rallies.
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.
During his trip, Nambiar visited some of the thousands of Muslim residents at a city stadium, where they have huddled since fleeing their homes. He later visited around 100 Buddhists at a local monastery who have also been displaced.