BANGKOK, 22 March 2013 (IRIN) - More than 1,000 people have been displaced following sectarian violence in central Myanmar this week, government officials tell IRIN.
"The numbers are still unclear, however, between 1,000 and 2,000 have been displaced," Ye Htut, Myanmar's presidential spokesman, said on 22 March. Many of the displaced are now staying in a local football stadium in the town of Meiktila, where they are receiving relief assistance, while others are staying with family and friends.
The comments follow two days of violence in Meiktila, in Mandalay Division - the worst communal unrest to shake Myanmar since clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddists and Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine State in 2012. That earlier violence left 167 dead, hundreds injured and over 120,000 people displaced. More than 10,000 homes were burned or destroyed.
The current conflict erupted after an argument broke out between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers. A Buddhist monk was reportedly among the first killed, leading a Buddhist mob to set fire to Muslim homes and at least five mosques, local media reports say.
Government reports suggest at least five people have been killed, but unconfirmed reports say the number is much higher.
Potential to spread
"This is an extremely worrisome situation," Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, said. "The government is not doing enough to head this off, and further sectarian violence in Myanmar is a real risk."
The government must promote reconciliation and tolerance in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, while at the same time holding those responsible for the violence accountable, he explained.
"What happened in one place could easily happen in another," Basil Fernando, director of policy and programmes for the Asian Human Rights Commission, said from Hong Kong. "It's imperative the government takes action against those responsible."
But according to Ye Htut, action is already being taken.
"We take this very seriously and will hold accountable those responsible," he said, noting 13 people were arrested on the morning of 22 March alone.
"At the moment, the situation is under control. However, there are still small groups of people trying to incite trouble. It's important we have the full cooperation of local residents," he said.
"This is quite unusual. People are being manipulated," said one local journalist who used to live in the area. He cited extremist views, such as anti-Muslim sentiment by some groups, as a possible underlying factor in the violence.
Myanmar's Muslims account for approximately 4 percent of the country's roughly 55 million inhabitants, however, the last nationwide census was conducted in 1983. The government lists 135 ethnic groups, which are grouped into eight national races: Burman, Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.
On 21 March, Vijay Nambiar, the UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Myanmar, arrived in Yangon, where he expressed sorrow over the loss of lives and destruction in Meiktila.
"While firm action by the authorities was needed to prevent further loss of life or spread of violence, the continued fostering of communal harmony and preservation of peace and tranquillity among the people was the most urgent priority, and this was the responsibility of all sections of society. Religious leaders and other community leaders must also publicly call on their followers to abjure violence, respect the law and promote peace," he said.
In a brief statement on 21 March, the US embassy said it was closely monitoring the situation and extended its "deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their lives and property in the violence."
The latest violence is seen as yet another test for Myanmar's reform-minded President Thein Sein, who has been praised for opening up and liberalizing the once-pariah Myanmar, also known as Burma, since taking office in March 2011.