Sectarian Clashes Are Reported in Central Myanmar

BANGKOK — At least five people have been killed in fighting between Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar, residents and a hospital official said on Thursday, a resurgence of communal violence that is testing the country’s fledgling democracy.

A mob of Buddhists, including monks from nearby monasteries, led a rampage through the Muslim quarter of the city of Meiktila on Thursday seeking to avenge the death of a monk the day before, said a photographer who witnessed the fighting.

“The area was like a killing field,” said the photographer, Wunna Naing, who is a resident of Meiktila. “Even the police told me that they could not handle what they witnessed. Children were among the victims,” he said.

Daw Mae Yee, an official at Meiktila General Hospital, said at least five people had been killed and that they had died of burns and slash wounds. U Win Htein, a member of Parliament from Meiktila, said rioting was “still out of control” as of Thursday afternoon and that the death toll was probably significantly higher.

Religious violence has shaken the government of President Thein Sein over the past year as the gradual rollback of five decades of authoritarian rule in Myanmar has coincided with a resurgence of nationalism and racial and religious hatred.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is about 90 percent Buddhist, with the rest of the population Christian, Muslim and animist. Some vocal Buddhist monks have been stridently anti-Muslim in the wake of communal clashes in Rakhine State, a sliver of land in western Myanmar where religious hatred runs high.

More than 150 people, most of them Muslims, have been killed in Rakhine since last June in clashes between Buddhist and Muslim villagers, many of whom are not recognized as citizens of the country and call themselves Rohingya.

Until this week, there were hopes that religious conflicts would be contained to western Myanmar. But the clashes in Meiktila are renewing concerns that religious strife will spread to other cities in Myanmar, which are typically multiethnic, a legacy of British colonial rule.

There have been signs of rising tensions. Last month in a township on the outskirts of Yangon, the commercial capital, Buddhists attacked what they said was a mosque being built without permission.

Meiktila, a garrison city with a strong military presence, is firmly in the heartland of the country, halfway between the new capital, Naypyidaw, and the old royal city of Mandalay.

Reports from residents indicate that the military units based in the city have not yet joined the police in helping quell the violence.

Photos posted on Thursday to Facebook and Myanmar news Web sites showed buildings on fire in the center of the city.

Clashes began on Wednesday and appear to have started with a disagreement in a gold shop owned by a Muslim family.

The police in Meiktila reached by telephone declined to comment.

Two mosques and a Muslim school were burned, residents said. Many houses were also destroyed in the Muslim quarter attacked on Thursday, which is known locally as the worker ward.

The authorities declared a curfew on Thursday for the second consecutive night.

(Source / 21.03.2013)

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