Violence in Burmese City Takes Deadly Toll


2013.03.21
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burma-meikhtila-mar-2013.jpg Police arrive in Mingalar-zayyon Ward, Meikhtila, as houses in the city burn on March 21, 2013.
RFA

Updated at 7:00 p.m. EST 2013-03-21

More than a dozen people have been killed and scores injured after two days of sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in central Burma's Meikhtila city, police sources and officials said Thursday.

Scores of shops and houses were also burned down or destroyed in the riots, some of the worst since ethnic clashes last year between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rakhines in western Burma's Rakhine state left at least 180 dead and tens of thousands homeless.

A curfew imposed on Wednesday across the city was extended for another day and security forces have strengthened their presence, residents said. Telephone lives have been cut and shops were shut.

The violence was triggered by a quarrel on Wednesday morning between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owner of a goldsmith's shop in the city's main bazaar and the clashes quickly spread through various parts of Meikhtila, located on the banks of a lake in Mandalay division, the sources said.

Police said at least one mosque and an Islamic school were destroyed.

Win Htein, an MP for Meikhtila township with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), said more than a dozen people have been killed.

"Three people including one monk died yesterday and about ten people died today," he told RFA's Burmese Service.

Other sources said up to 14 people may have been killed in the two days of rioting involving hundreds of city residents.

Win Htein said he saw houses burning near the city's main bus terminal and a building along a highway torched.

Bodies 'on the streets'

A senior officer at the Meikhtila District Police Office said the bodies of 14 people were found “on the streets” Thursday morning, the Irrawaddy online journal reported.

Tun Naing, the deputy chief police officer of Mandalay division, said the situation had been brought under control by Thursday night local time after two days of violence.

"All burnings and clashes have been brought under control now," he told RFA.

He said that a panel of officials led by Ye Myint, the chief minister of Mandalay division, was at the scene Thursday to get a full picture of the situation.

President Thein Sein has ordered security reinforcement to the area after some groups claimed that police did not take prompt action to nip the violence at the start.

“The situation is still tense there and we’ve deployed between 600 and 700 police officers,” Office of the President spokesperson Ye Htut told the Irrawaddy journal.

Concern

The United States has expressed concern over the clashes, saying it is "monitoring events closely."

"I am deeply concerned about reports of violence and widespread property damage in Meikhtila Township, Mandalay Region," Derek Mitchell, the U.S. envoy in Burma, said in a statement posted at the embassy website.

Leading monks from Mandalay and Sagaing divisions, as well as local nongovernmental groups from Rangoon, have also gone to the area to help ease tensions.

The violence stemmed from a quarrel between the owner of the goldsmith shop and a villager and his wife who had gone there to sell a gold hair pin, a police source said.

An argument broke out when the item was purportedly damaged as it was being authenticated by the goldsmith. Tension grew as the two sides began to haggle over the price to be offered for the item and people in the shop beat the customers, causing an uproar in the bazaar, the source said.

When the villager was wounded, his sympathizers burned the goldsmith shop and ignited a mass riot, according to the source.

'Like hell'

"I saw some fighting between two groups and some houses have been burning. It is like hell," Pinnyasiha, a prominent Burmese Buddhist monk popularly known as Shwe Nya Wa Sayadaw, told RFA.

He said he and other monks calmed down a group of angry Buddhists to pave the way for security forces to rescue Muslims trapped in their houses.

"We couldn’t stop the angry crowd so we told them to follow us to a place which is a little bit far from the area. They followed us. While those people were with us, the security forces took the Muslims out from their houses."

"But, some who didn't follow us were injured and some died in the fighting between Muslims and Buddhists," he said.

Riot police were at the scene but did not take prompt action to contain the violence, one nongovernmental organization leader said, citing witnesses.

"According to witnesses, riot police just stood by as the clashes took place," said Min Ko Naing, a member of the 88 Generation democracy movement.

"What we are worried is that if the security forces don't control the riots, people bent on fueling violence might believe they can do whatever they want," he said.

He wondered whether some officials in charge of security had turned a blind eye to the clashes in an attempt to create disorder and pave the way for a return to military rule.

"I guess there are people who do not want to see stability. We cannot afford to have military rule again," he said, referring to the decades of harsh rule under the previous military junta, which gave up power two years ago to the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein.

Previous incidents

Last month, an angry Buddhist mob attacked a Muslim school and shops in a suburb outside Rangoon.

The attacks were triggered by reports that the Muslim school in Manpye quarter in Thaketa township was being extended to a prayer house despite objections from the predominantly Buddhist residents.

The worst communal violence in recent years occurred in Rakhine state in June and October last year, leaving at least 180 people dead and thousands homeless, the vast majority of whom were Muslim Rohingya.

Reported by Moe Thu Aung, Ei Ei Khaine, Min Ko Naing and Khin Khin Ei for RFA's Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar, Win Naing and Khin Maung Soe. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

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