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Myanmar Buddhists ransack mosque as religious violence flares

AFP , Friday 24 Jun 2016

Scores of Buddhists ransacked a mosque in central Myanmar forcing Muslims to seek refuge in a police station overnight, officials and residents said Friday, as tensions between the two groups continues to plague the Southeast Asian nation.

Bouts of anti-Muslim violence have left scores dead across Myanmar since 2012 and the febrile atmosphere has seen Aung San Suu Kyi's new government come under pressure to address the country's secretarian divides.

The most recent violence erupted on Thursday afternoon as a mob of around 200 Buddhists rampaged through a Muslim area of a village in Bago province following an argument between neighbours over the building of a Muslim school.

"It started when a Muslim man and Buddhist women started to argue and then people came to fight him," Hla Tint, the village administrator, told AFP.

"Parts of the mosque were destroyed... they also destroyed the fence of the Muslim cemetery," he added.

Around 70 Muslims, including children, sought shelter in a police station overnight on Thursday, he said, adding there were no serious injuries and peace had been restored.

But one Muslim resident told AFP his community of around 150 people is now living in fear.

"We had to hide as some people were threatening to kill Muslims. The situation has never been like this before," Tin Shwe OO, 29, told AFP, adding his family stayed at the small police station overnight.

"I do not dare to stay at my house. For the safety of my family, I want to stay somewhere else for about a week or so."

Police confirmed the damage, while the mosque's secretary, Win Shwe, told AFP it is now "impossible" for the Muslims to worship.

Outbreaks of deadly violence have roiled the country in recent years threatening to unpick democratic gains since the army began loosening its stranglehold in 2011.

The worst violence struck central Myanmar and western Rakhine State which is home to the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, tens of thousands of whom still languish in displacement camps after rioting.

Buddhist nationalists vigorously oppose moves to recognise the Rohingya as an official minority group, instead labelling them "Bengali" -- shorthand for illegal migrants from the border with Bangladesh.

The Information Ministry this week ordered Myanmar officials to refer to the oppressed minority as "people who believe in Islam" rather than Rohingya or Bengali, while the UN warned violations against the group could amount to "crimes against humanity".

Suu Kyi, who is currently visiting Thailand, has come under fire for failing to speak up for the Rohingya or strongly condemn the abuse they face.

Analysts say the veteran activist, for years celebrated around the world as a vocal champion of human rights, is choosing her words carefully to avoid sparking unrest in a country she now leads.

Her ruling pro-democracy party is dominated by ethnic Bamar Buddhists and did not field any Muslim MPs in the election last year that drove it to power.

Hardline monks -- known as the Ma Ba Tha -- are accused of stoking violence and tensions with hate speech.

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