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(Bangkok) – The Burmese government should thoroughly investigate and hold accountable those who incited and committed deadly violence in Meiktila in central Burma from March 20 to 22, 2013. Decisive government action to combat impunity, end discrimination, and promote tolerance among religious groups is needed to end the tide of attacks against Muslim communities.

An estimated 40 people were killed and 61 wounded in the clashes between Muslims and majority Buddhists in Meiktila in the Mandalay Region. Satellite images analysed by Human Rights Watch show the scale of the destruction: an estimated 828 buildings, the vast majority residences, were totally destroyed and at least 35 other buildings were partially destroyed. Areas with near total destruction were concentrated within three locations in Meiktila measuring more than 24 hectares in total area west and northeast of the city’s main market. 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.

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

According to a needs assessment released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of HumanitarianAffairs (OCHA), over 12,000 people were displaced by the violence in Meiktila and are in shelters around the town.

Since the Meiktila violence, attacks against Muslims have occurred elsewhere in central Burma, including Okpho, Gyobingauk, and Minhla townships of Pegu region. Soldiers reportedly fired warning shots in the air to disperse protesters in Pegu, and an estimated nine townships in Burma are under emergency provisions or curfew, limiting public assembly.

The spread of anti-Islamic sentiment and religious intolerance is a serious challenge to the rights of Muslims in Burma. 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.

Burma’s 2008 Constitution contains provisions that ensure religious freedom and states that the government should “assist and protect the religions it recognizes to its utmost.” President Thein Sein’s office on March 28 called for “earnest effort[s] to control and address all forms of violence including instigations that lead to racial and religious tensions in the interest of the people in accord with the Constitution and existing laws.”

Such efforts need to be accompanied by strong measures, including holding those who planned, organized, and carried out the recent violence accountable, irrespective of the person’s position or the community from which they originate. 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 government should also take urgent steps to ensure that the police respond impartially to violence. During the violence in Arakan State in June and October, police frequently sided with the majority Buddhist community against the minority Rohingya Muslim population. Frequently the police did nothing to stop the violence against Muslims and in many cases joined with Buddhist mobs to attack predominantly Muslim villages.

“Burma’s government and political, religious, and community leaders should demand an end to the hate speech that has fuelled violence and discrimination against communities in Burma’s fragile multicultural society,” Adams said. “Decisive government action according to the rule of law is critically important to deter extremists and anyone else using violence to further economic, religious, and political agendas.”

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