UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations' top official for Burma said Tuesday that recent sectarian violence in the central part of the country was “clearly targeted” against Muslim communities in the mostly Buddhist nation.
Vijay Nambiar, the U.N. secretary-general’s Special Adviser on Burma, or Myanmar, as it is also known, just finished a short visit to the country where he met with officials and victims of the recent violence.
Speaking to reporters in New York via telephone from Thailand, Nambiar said he visited shelters where about 9,000 displaced persons - mostly Muslims - are staying after their homes were attacked and dozens were killed in the central city of Meikhtila. Nambiar said the attacks were carried out with near “brutal efficiency.”
“The people were traumatized - the people who were in the shelters," said Nambiar. "But one thing I noticed was, it had taken them so much by surprise, they had lived for generations together with their Buddhist neighbors and they found it very difficult to understand how this could have happened.”
He said most of the victims still want to return home. He added that in meetings with government officials, they suggested they would try to provide some sort of compensation to the victims.
The violence began last week with an argument between a Muslim gold shop owner and a Buddhist customer in Meikhtila that escalated into street fighting and looting by angry Buddhist mobs.
Nambiar said it is important that the perpetrators are caught and punished.
“At present the authorities have said they have around 23 persons who were actually apprehended, who were actually caught, and they are in the process of making inquiries to find out who else has been involved," he said. "When I met with the president [Thein Sein] yesterday, he was very firm in saying that firm action will be taken against them and that firm action will also be taken to prevent the spread of such attacks elsewhere.”
But despite those promises, Nambiar said there are disturbing reports of sectarian attacks in other parts of the country.
The U.N. secretary-general’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, has also expressed his concern about the communal violence. In a statement Tuesday, he urged the government to promote reconciliation and tolerance and to take measures to prevent an escalation.
On Friday, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in Meiktila and nearby townships south of Mandalay, asking the army to help stop the violence.
The anti-Muslim rioting follows communal violence last year in western Rakhine state. Fighting between Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists left close to 200 people dead and 120,000 displaced, the vast majority of them stateless Rohingya Muslims.