Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

One dead in central Burma violence

A Muslim girl weeps as she flees her village in Okkan, north of Yangon, Burma (AP)
A firefighter runs towards a burning stock of hay which belongs to a Muslim household in Okkan, Burma (AP)

Buddhist mobs hurling bricks overran a pair of mosques and torched more than 100 homes in central Burma, killing one person and injuring at least nine more in the latest anti-Muslim violence to shake the country.

Terrified Muslim families who fled the assaults around Okkan, about 70 miles (110km) north of Yangon, could be seen late on Tuesday hiding in forests along roads and crouching in paddy fields afterwards. Some, in a state of shock, wept as their houses burned in the night and young men with buckets futilely tried to douse the flames.

The unrest was the first reported since late March, when similar Buddhist-led violence swept the town of Meikthila, further north, killing at least 43 people.

It underscored the failure of reformist President Thein Sein's government to curb increasing attacks on minority Muslims in a nation struggling to emerge from half a century of oppressive military rule.

Residents said as many as 400 Buddhists armed with bricks and sticks rampaged through Okkan on Tuesday afternoon. They targeted Muslim shops and ransacked two mosques. About 20 riot police were later deployed to guard one of them, a single-storey structure, which had its doors broken and windows smashed.

The worst-hit areas were three outlying villages that form part of the town. Each village contained at least 60 mostly Muslim homes; all were torched. Columns of smoke and leaping flames could be seen rising from burning homes in the villages as a team of police approached, pausing to take pictures with their mobile phones.

Thet Lwin, a deputy commissioner of police for the region, said one of the 10 people wounded on Tuesday died overnight.

He said police have so far detained 18 attackers who destroyed 157 homes and shops in the town of Okkan and three outlying villages, which were quiet on Wednesday with around 300 police on guard. Police gave no details on who was behind the assault.

Stopping the spread of sectarian violence has proven a major challenge for Thein Sein's government since it erupted in western Rakhine state last year. Human rights groups have recently accused his administration of failing to crack down on Buddhist extremists as violence has spread closer to the economic capital, Yangon, at times overwhelming riot police who have stood by as machete-wielding crowds attacked Muslims and their property.

Muslims account for about 4% of the nation's roughly 60 million people, and during the long era of authoritarian rule, military governments twice drove out hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, while smaller clashes occurred elsewhere. About one third of the nation's population consists of ethnic minority groups, and most have waged wars against the government for autonomy.

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