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882 Homes Torched in Meikhtila, Satellite Images Show

Paul Vrieze The Irrawaddy

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RANGOON—Satellite images released by Human Rights Watch on Monday revealed that during the recent unrest between Buddhists and the Muslim minority in Meikhtila town, mobs burned down three neighborhoods covering 60.5 acres and containing at least 828 homes.

The New York-based group urged the government to effectively stem the anti-Muslim violence in central Burma and put those responsible for the crimes on trial.

“The government should investigate responsibility for the violence in Meikhtila and the failure of the police to stop wanton killings and the burning of entire neighborhoods,” HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement.

The high-resolution images were taken a week after riots first erupted in Meikhtila, Mandalay Division, on March 20, and show that three areas were reduced to ashes as a result of arson attacks. Photos of the same area taken on Dec. 13 by comparison, show the neighborhoods intact.

HRW concluded in an imagery analysis that 828 homes were destroyed and 35 buildings severely damaged. “Damages are spatially concentrated within multiple areas of near total destruction measuring approximately 24.5 hectares [60.5 acres] in total area,” the group said, without specifying if the homes were owned by Muslims or Buddhists.

“The destruction appears similar to satellite imagery of towns affected by sectarian violence in Arakan State in 2012, in which arson attacks left large, clearly defined residential areas in ashes,” HRW said, referring to the clashes between Buddhist Arkanese and Rohingya Muslims in western Burma, which killed scores of villagers and displaced 125,000 people, mostly Rohingyas.

Burma’s government should have learned the lessons of recent sectarian clashes in Arakan State and moved quickly to bolster the capacity of the police to contain violence and protect lives and property,” said Adams.

The riots in Meikhtila broke out on March 20 and clashes between majority Buddhists and the Muslim minority engulfed the town and 12,846 people fled. A state of emergency was declared on March 22 and the army restored calm.

The unrest subsequently spread to a total of 11 townships in Mandalay and Pegu divisions, where Muslim neighborhoods were ransacked. On March 28, President Thein Sein warned that the government would use force if necessary to quell the unrest. Soon after, the riots stopped.

According to government figures, a total of 43 people were killed and 93 were hospitalized in the riots, most of them in Meikhtila, while 1,227 homes, 77 shops and 37 mosques were destroyed. Police said 68 detainees were being charged for their role in the unrest.

However, the government’s lack of decisive action in protecting minority Muslim communities in recent violence has been heavily criticized, while the violence has also been blamed on those spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The spread of an anti-Islamic sentiment is “a serious challenge to the rights of Muslims in Burma,” HRW said, adding that, “Some well-known members of the Buddhist monkhood, or Sangha, have given sermons and distributed anti-Muslim tracts and directives that call on Buddhist residents to boycott Muslim businesses and shun contact with Muslim communities.”

“The government should also make it clear that it will not tolerate incitement to violence, especially by clergy or others in positions of authority,” the group said.

On Friday, the director of operations of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs John Ging wrapped up a visit to Burma.

Ging joined the growing number of international aid and rights groups who are warning that the government should improve the conditions in refugee camps of Rohingyas in Arakan State ahead of the nearing rainy season, and allow aid groups access to the sites.

“We must act immediately to prevent a predictable tragedy. Many of the camps where the IDPs are currently located are on low-lying ground which floods every year,” he said.