State of Emergency Declared in Central Burma After Religious Riot

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Soe Zeya Tun / REUTERS

Smoke rises as people look on in Meiktila, Burma, March 21, 2013

Communal violence has gripped Burma again, as a Buddhist mob clashed with local Muslims in the town of Meiktila, killing at least 20 and displacing thousands. The unrest, which forced President Thein Sein to declare a state of emergency on Friday, is a harrowing reminder of the sectarian strife that decimated the country’s western Arakan (Rakhine) state last year, and presents another challenge to the country’s fledgling democracy.

(MORE: TIME’s Hannah Beech on Burma’s President Thein Sein)

The conflict was reportedly sparked by an argument between a Muslim shopkeeper and Buddhist customers over a gold ring. The disagreement soon escalated, leading four gold shops to be burned to the ground and a 1,000-strong mob to run riot through a Muslim neighborhood. Police seized knives, swords and homemade weapons from marauding young men on Friday.

Journalists attempting to report in the area have been threatened. A photographer for the Associated Press reportedly had a foot-long dagger placed against his neck by a monk who had his face covered. The confrontation was defused when the photographer handed over his camera’s memory card. Late on Friday, the Burmese government said that nine reporters trapped amid the unrest had been rescued by local police and evacuated from the area.

On social media, residents reported seeing bodies scattered by the side of the road and women and children lying helpless, their homes destroyed. Aung, a Muslim lawyer living in Meiktila, told TIME that the violence was already spreading to nearby townships. “They are burning mosques and houses and stealing Muslim property,” said Aung. Many Buddhists are reportedly too afraid to leave their homes and were sheltering in monasteries or other locations far from the bloodshed. “We don’t feel safe and we have now moved inside a monastery,” Sein Shwe, a Buddhist shopkeeper, told the AP. “The situation is unpredictable and dangerous.”

(PHOTOS: Sectarian Unrest in Burma Sees Dozens Dead, Thousands Fleeing)

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is no stranger to civil strife. At least one-third of the country’s 60 million people are ethnic minorities. After the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, there were pogroms against the Indian and Chinese populations. And in the decades since, ethnic insurgencies have flared periodically, most recently in Kachin state. Earlier this year, repeated clashes in Arakan state between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists left some 115,000 displaced and more than 100 dead, according the U.N. In that instance, the violence was sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Muslim men. The clashes forced roughly 13,000 Rohingya to flee Burma on flimsy boats last year, and around 500 people are believed to have died at sea as a result. The Rohingya, who have lived in the region for generations, are officially stateless and described by the U.N. Refugee Agency as the one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. They are not included in the list of 135 official ethnic groups in Burma and face restrictions on travel, marriage and reproduction.

However, the current violence in Meiktila has called into question the root cause of the Rakhine strife. Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project NGO that works for the Rohingya, told TIME that the perception of last year’s unrest as sectarian rather than religious was inaccurate. “It was primarily anti-Muslim violence that took place in Rakhine [state] despite the issue of statelessness — Kaman Muslims [a distinct Islamic group granted citizenship] were also targeted and expelled from townships. I was in Rangoon 10 days ago and handed a 14-page anti-Muslim pamphlet that did not mention Rakhine.”

Vijay Nambiar, the U.N.’s Burma envoy, issued a statement expressing “deep sorrow at the tragic loss of lives and destruction” and asked for local figures to “publicly call on their followers to abjure violence, respect the law and promote peace.” Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell said he was “deeply concerned about reports of violence and widespread property damage in Meiktila.” There has been no reaction yet from opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laurate Aung San Suu Kyi.

(PHOTOS: On the Front Lines With the Kachin Independence Army)

5 comments
KhineZin
KhineZin

why the world top magazine like this never said how the whole events started that make the buddhist people to riot against like that? the muslimS from the muslim owned shop beat up the burmese buddhist customer because she won't accept their low price in buying back the gold comb she bought from their shop year ago. and later at the same day, the group of muslims beat up a buddhist monk who got nothing to do with the earlier event, throwed acid at the monk n set him on fire when he's still alive. THAT IS WHAT STARTED THE BUDDHIST PEOPLE TO STRIKE BACK. now tell me about how those muslims start the riots world wide over a video about their prophet, in which, non of the muslims were harmed nor killed in making of the video. tell me about how buddhist monks in thailand have to go out with armed protection from soldiers because of muslims rebels. and tell us, right at the faces of burmese buddhist people, that we should let the same fate to happen to us just like in thailand rather than striking back at the muslims in defend of our people and our country. i dare YOU. 

ronajrny
ronajrny

Weren't Muslims also mentioned in this article as part of the violence, or am I just being overly critical? I recall that Muslims are reputed to have raped and killed, if not exclusively, certainly as well. Who knows who started it all but there is likely enough blame to go around and to make note of it in the commentary. I have no animosity toward either religion for the record, only that killing in the name of ones holy diety has been going on since time began and isn't going to stop. I do have a problem with that.

RafaSantos
RafaSantos

@ronajrnyIsolated incidents of sex violence, like the rape-murder of that Buddhist woman, are no excuse for collective punishment of whole minority communities.* With the US's history of ethnic strife, I'd think you know that. You should also know that US soldiers in military bases overseas are known to target local women and girls in sex attacks (I know cases of that happening in Japan, South Korea and Colombia). Would that justify pogroms on American expats and tourists in the area?


* Rohingya women, it should be said, have denounced sex abuse by security forces for decades.

JohnDahodi
JohnDahodi

The world has been changed 360 degree in this 21st century where daily chanters of peace on this earth like Buddhist monks are killing live human beings by knives, swards and lethal weapons and burnt their homes? 

AmericanMuse
AmericanMuse

Racist religious violence is rampant among Buddhists. It's happening in Sri Lanka as well.