— Burma is being urged to hold accountable those responsible for sectarian violence in March, mainly targeted at Muslims, that left at least 43 people dead, dozens injured, and thousands homeless. The attacks shook Muslim communities and raised concerns about sectarian unrest spreading.
A dispute between a Muslim gold shop owner and a Buddhist customer in central Burma's Meiktila township escalated into three days of mob violence, mainly against the Muslim population.
Satellite photos released Monday by Human Rights Watch
show entire neighborhoods burned to the ground, a disturbing echo of last year's clashes in western Rakhine state.
Extremists have learned they can attack Muslims and get away with it, deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson said.
"What we saw in Meiktila was police forces sitting around or standing behind various different mobs as they were attacking mosques and attacking communities. Why weren't they restoring order?" he asked."Why aren't they investigating to find out actually who is behind this? Who, not only committed the violent acts but also who instigated and incited people to do so?"
In a national broadcast, President Thein Sein acknowledged the damage done to Burma's image and warned against letting religious tensions spiral out of control and disrupt reforms.
Authorities have announced about 70 arrests in the violence, but it is unclear if those detained will be prosecuted.
United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Burma, Ashok Nigam, stressed the need to enforce the law.
“It is important that the rule of law prevails and that those who perpetrated this are brought to justice that is important," he said. "That also sends out very important messages in terms of prevention in the future.”
Few have been held accountable for last year's clashes in Rakhine state that left almost 200 dead and 120,000 segregated into relief camps, most of them stateless Rohingya Muslims.
An estimated 25,000 Rohingya have since taken to crowded boats and fled toward neighboring countries.
According to Phil Robertson, those remaining are losing hope and the coming rainy season will bring more disaster.
“So, we're looking at a major health crisis coming for the Rohingya as well who have already been weakened by a lack of food and basic nutrients," he explained. "So, it is a slow-moving humanitarian disaster that is going to have a significant uptick when the rains start.”
Al Haj Aye Lwin, a Muslim leader in Rangoon and member of the Religions for Peace Council says attacks on Muslims appear coordinated to create sectarian tensions
“I noticed at the grassroots level we have a very very good relations, but there was instigation, and there were some systematically planned traps laid by those people to turn this into a racist and also a religious problem,” he said.
As Burma's democratic reforms lead to majority rule, rights activists stress the need to protect minority rights and for the country to value its rich ethnic and religious diversity.