Move to Restore Order in Meikhtila After Violence


2013.03.23
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A military convoy moving into Meikhtila, March 23, 2013.
RFA

About 40 people have died and 10,000 others been displaced in communal riots that swept through the central Burmese city of Meikhtila this week, officials and community leaders said Saturday as the military moved to restore law and order after an orgy of arson, looting, and killings.

Hundreds of military personnel took up positions at key areas in the city as the local authorities began the grim task of cleaning up the streets of burned corpses and assessing damage of burned buildings following clashes between Buddhists and Muslims since Wednesday.

Meikhtila Police said they have arrested four people after rounding up dozens of suspects linked to the riots, the worst since Buddhist-Muslim clashes in western Rakhine state last year.

"We rounded up 53 people but released 49 of them and continue to hold only four," a city police officer told RFA's Burmese Service.

The government put the death toll at 32 as of late Saturday, according to state television, a day after President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency and ordered troops to enter the city because local police had failed to contain the violence.

"The situation has calmed down and the authorities are moving to help provide shelter to the homeless," the president's office said on its website.

But community leaders and other sources told RFA that the death toll may have risen to 50, as relief workers backed by security forces began to enter some of the worst affected areas to assess damage, including Meikhtila, Wan Twin, Tharse, and Mahlaing townships.

"We learned that the death toll is between 40 and 50," one source said.

13 mosques burnt

Aung Thein, a popular Muslim lawyer in Meikhtila, told RFA that he had learned that 47 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the violence.

He said 13 mosques in the city had been also been burned down, with the latest incident reported on Saturday night local time.

"Three truckloads of people went to Ywa Ton village of about 30 Muslim households about seven miles [4.8 kilometers] west of Ya Myi Thin town and torched the mosque and most of the houses there," he said.

Aung Thein also said that he was told that 10,000 Muslims and 3,000 Buddhists have been made homeless by the violence.

The Burmese Information Ministry said almost 9,000 people have been displaced by the unrest.

"We hope the government will rein in the extremists and enforce the rule of the law," Aung Thein said.

Thousands of Muslim residents have fled their homes amid the violence, which sources said 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.

Hundreds of homeless Muslims have been put up in at least three Buddhist monasteries in a show of unity by monks running these institutions following the bitter clashes.

"Several kind and generous monks have been helping the displaced Muslims," Hla Myint, a Muslim trader whose house was razed to the ground and who is among those staying in the monasteries, told RFA.

Football stadium

Reports said security forces have escorted about 6,000 displaced Muslims over the last two days to a football stadium, located nearly two miles (3.2 kilometers) from Meikhtila city center where they have made temporary shelters from tarpaulin and thatch.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special adviser on Burma is scheduled to visit Meikhtila on Sunday to meet local Buddhist and other community leaders and discuss relief arrangements, officials said.

Special Adviser Vijay Nambiar, who arrived in Rangoon on Friday, will be accompanied by Wunna Shwe, Burma's Islamic Council chief.

He had issued a statement on Friday asking religious leaders and other community leaders to publicly call on their followers to abjure violence, respect the law and promote peace.

Challenge

The latest clashes are some of the worst since violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rakhines occurred twice last year in Rakhine state and left at least 180 dead and tens of thousands homeless.

More than a third of the 100,000 people in Meikhtila, a garrison city located halfway between Mandalay and the capital Naypyidaw, is Muslim.

The religious clashes pose another major challenge to President Thein Sein, who has been embracing democratic and other reforms since he took over in 2011 after nearly five decades of harsh military rule.

He has released many political prisoners, lifted media censorship and held free by-elections—reforms which have led to lifting of international sanctions on the once-pariah nation.

Reported by RFA's Burmese Service. Translated by Khin Maung Soe. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

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