Burmese president, Thein Sein, declared a state of emergency and deployed army troops on March 22 after sectarian violence between a Buddhist mob and local Muslims broke out in the town of Meikhtila. Anti-Muslim mobs destroyed mosques and burned down dozens of homes in three other towns over the weekend. At least 32 people have been killed and 10,000 (mostly Muslim) residents have been displaced as a result of the attacks.
The latest in a string of violence that has plagued the country was reportedly sparked after an argument between a Muslim shopkeeper and Buddhist customers over a gold ring. Soon after, four gold shops were burned and a mob of 1,000 people rioted through a Muslim neighborhood. Journalists have been threatened while reporting in the area and nine reporters “trapped amid the unrest” have been rescued and evacuated from the region. Knives, swords, and homemade weapons were seized from young men by the police. Despite initial military intervention, unrest in the region has spread toward the capital of Naypyitaw.
Thein Sein’s administration, even after ushering in an era of democratic changes in the country, still faces the struggles of a country which was under army rule for half a century. Unlike last year’s violence between Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, analysts see the current conflict as a reflection of the growing influence of racism in the region. Most Muslims in Burma are decedents of those who migrated from areas (which are now known as India and Bangladesh) centuries ago, who unlike the ethnic Burman majority, have darker skin.
Vijay Nambiar, the U.N. secretary-general’s special adviser to Burma, visited the displaced residents of Meikhtila and called on the government to punish those responsible for the violence. He learned individuals in both the Buddhist and Muslim communities have helped each other out while religious leaders are advocating peace.