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UN envoy surveys riot-hit Myanmar town

MEIKTILA, Myanmar: A United Nations envoy yesterday surveyed the charred ruins of homes and met some of those displaced by deadly riots in Myanmar, as Buddhist and Muslim leaders urged an end to the religious violence.

The communal clashes in the central town of Meiktila have killed at least 32 people and displaced about 9,000, according to officials, destroying swathes of the town and prompting an army-enforced state of emergency.

After visiting camps for the displaced from both communities Vijay Nambiar, the UN special adviser on Myanmar, expressed sadness at the death and destruction but said residents want to rebuild their shattered lives.

“What I noticed was that there was great sadness and tragedy, but there was very little hatred … and that people were determined to bring back their lives,” he told reporters, adding some local residents blamed unidentified ‘outsiders’ for instigating the clashes.

Nambiar visited schools and monasteries used as shelters after parts of the town were torched by mobs, and a local sports stadium where around 1,000 people have taken refuge.

“We are prepared to help as much as we can in terms of humanitarian assistance,” he added.

Buddhist and Muslim leaders spoke out publicly for the first time since the violence began, urging respect for the law and the maintenance of “community harmony with love and kindness”.

The Interfaith Friendship Organisation — which also represents Hindus and Christians — also called on the government to protect both communities in Meiktila, 130 kilometres north of the capital Naypyidaw.

An uneasy peace prevailed over the town yesterday, with shops reopening and police and army patrols keeping order after three days of rioting which saw armed mobs — including monks — take control of the streets.

“The situation is calmer today. People are going out on the street. But we still have to take care of our security, especially at night,” one resident told AFP, requesting anonymity.

“We have also heard many rumours … we have no idea what might happen next.” The clashes are a stark reminder of the challenge which worsening Muslim-Buddhist tensions poses to Myanmar’s quasi-civilian regime as it tries to reform the country after decades of iron-fisted military rule.

It was the most serious religious conflict since Buddhists and Muslims clashed in the western state of Rakhine last year, leaving at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced.

The state of emergency, signed by President Thein Sein, is designed to enable the army to help restore order and is a significant move in a country trying to emerge from the legacy of junta rule, which ended two years ago.

The UN, US, Britain and rights groups have called for calm and dialogue between communities amid fears the violence could spread.

Myanmar’s Muslims — largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent — account for an estimated four percent of the population of roughly 60 million, although the country has not conducted a census in three decades.

Religious violence has occasionally broken out in the past in some areas across the country, with Rakhine state a flashpoint for the tensions.

Since violence erupted there last year, thousands of Muslim Rohingya — including a growing number of women and children — have fled the conflict in rickety boats, many heading for Malaysia. — AFP

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