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UN Myanmar envoy visits ruined city after violence

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 24, 2013 at 5:09 am •  Published: March 24, 2013
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No new violence was reported overnight, but residents remained anxious.

"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 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.

The struggle to contain the violence has proven another major challenge to Thein Sein's reformist administration, which has faced an upsurge in fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels in the north and major protests at a northern copper mine where angry residents — emboldened by promises of freedom of expression — have come out to denounce land grabbing.

The devastation was reminiscent of last year's clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that left hundreds of people dead and more than 100,000 displaced — almost all of them Muslim. The Rohingya are widely perceived as illegal migrants and foreigners from Bangladesh; the Muslim population of Meikhtila is believed to be mostly of Indian origin.

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.

Occasional isolated violence involving Myanmar's majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities has occurred for decades, even under the authoritarian military governments that ruled the country from 1962 to 2011.