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Tensions persist between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar

By Phyo Wai Lin, Jethro Mullen and Kocha Olarn, CNN
updated 7:06 AM EDT, Mon March 25, 2013
Displaced people rest at a relief camp in Meiktila, central Myanmar on March 24, 2013.
Displaced people rest at a relief camp in Meiktila, central Myanmar on March 24, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Authorities have imposed a state of emergency in Meiktila
  • Communal violence there has left 32 dead and thousands displaced
  • Arson attacks on Muslim properties took place in other towns over the weekend
  • Last year, ethnic unrest in western Myanmar killed scores of people

Yangon, Myanmar (CNN) -- Residents of the city in central Myanmar where clashes between Buddhists and the Muslim minority killed dozens of people last week struggled to resume their daily lives on Monday with a state of emergency still in place.

Even as an uneasy calm prevailed in Meiktila, the city at the heart of the unrest, police reported fresh arson attacks on Muslim properties in other areas, showing the challenges Myanmar authorities face in reining in communal tensions in this nascent democracy.

A group of Buddhists on Saturday night torched 65 houses and religious buildings in Yemethin Township, which is about 40 kilometers south of Meiktila and not under a state of emergency, according to Lt. Col. Aung Min, a spokesman for the Myanmar Police Force.

And on Sunday night, smaller outbreaks of arson took place in other towns further south, including Okpo and Tatkon, he said.

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The attacks over the weekend caused property damage, but didn't result in any deaths, Aung Min said. That contrasts with the violence in Meiktila last week, which killed at least 32 people, according to the New Light of Myanmar, a state-run newspaper.

In the Meiktila clashes, which were reportedly set off by a dispute between a Muslim gold shop owner and two Buddhist sellers, rioters set fire to houses schools and mosques, prompting thousands of residents to flee their homes.

State of emergency

As the violence threatened to spiral out of control, authorities declared a state of emergency on Friday, which allows the military to help reinstate order.

Police confiscated weapons such as swords and machetes from groups of Buddhists -- some of them monks -- who were roaming the streets, officials said.

As authorities began to clear up after the mayhem, they found more than 20 bodies so badly burned they couldn't be identified, the New Light of Myanmar reported.

The newspaper said Sunday the unrest had left 8,707 people living in temporary shelters such as a soccer stadium and a monastery in Meiktila, a lakeside city about 130 kilometers north of the administrative capital, Naypyidaw.

But Win Htein, an opposition member of parliament for the area, on Monday gave a higher estimate for the number of people displaced by the unrest, saying 10,000 Muslims and 7,000 Buddhists had been driven from their homes.

"We are facing the problem of not having enough food and blankets," he said.

At the same time, he said, the overall situation in the city had improved,with shops starting to reopen.

Win Htein had said last week that he believed that most of those killed in the violence were Muslims.

Police have detained a total of 36 people in relation to the recent clashes in Meiktila and other towns, Aung Min said Monday.

Concerns after previous unrest

The United Nations and the United States have both expressed concern about the recent violence in Myanmar, which is emerging from decades of military repression and has taken a number of significant steps toward democracy in recent years under President Thein Sein.

The sudden boiling over of tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar follows sectarian troubles that killed scores of people in the west of the country last year.

Those clashes, in Rakhine State, took place between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya, a stateless ethnic Muslim group.

Most of the victims in that unrest were Rohingya. Tens of thousands more were left living in makeshift camps, and many of them have since joined those who attempt each year to flee to Thailand and Malaysia in flimsy boats.

READ MORE: Armed Buddhists, including monks, clash with Muslims in Myanmar

Journalist Phyo Wai Lin reported from Yangon, CNN's Kocha Olarn reported from Bangkok, Thailand, and CNN's Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong.

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