Hundreds homeless after fresh Myanmar religious unrest

YANGON - Hundreds of people made homeless by Myanmar's latest eruption of religious violence were sheltering in a school Monday, a local MP said, after mobs torched the homes and shops of local Muslims.

Around 1,000 anti-Muslim rioters rampaged through villages in Kanbalu, in the central region of Sagaing, on Saturday evening, setting fire to property and attacking rescue vehicles.

Dozens of houses and shops were left in charred ruins.

"The fires burned until last night, but they have now been extinguished after it rained heavily," said Myint Naing a local MP for the opposition National League for Democracy party, adding that the situation was calm.

He said 160 men and 158 women who had lost their homes had taken shelter in a school after unrest which shocked the local community.

"They had been living peacefully for many years and this is the first time they saw violence," he said.

Attacks against Muslims - who make up at least four per cent of the population - have exposed deep rifts in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, overshadowing widely praised political reforms since military rule ended in 2011.

The latest violence is the first anti-Muslim incident reported in the Sagaing region amid signs that the unrest is continuing to widen.

State newspaper the New Light of Myanmar said the situation was "normal" by Monday morning and authorities were making arrangements to open camps for those who lost their homes. No injuries have been reported.

The report said 12 people had been arrested in relation to the unrest, which began after a Muslim man was detained on suspicion of attempting to rape a Buddhist woman on Saturday evening.

A crowd of about 150 people and three Buddhist monks gathered at the local police station on Saturday demanding that the accused be handed over to them, according to a message on the Ministry of Information website on Sunday.

When the authorities refused, the mob attacked Muslim property in the area and the crowd grew in size and ferocity as the night went on.

Religious violence has left about 250 people dead and more than 140,000 homeless in Myanmar - mostly Muslims - since clashes between Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority broke out in the west of the country last year.

This year the unrest has widened, with attacks on other Myanmar Muslims across the country.

The country's once-feared security forces have often proved ineffective in dealing with the unrest, with rights groups claiming officials have actively colluded with rioters - a claim the government rejects.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric, spread by radical Buddhist monks, has been on the rise in Myanmar. Many of the clashes have featured retaliatory attacks against entire communities in response to accusations of seemingly isolated criminal acts.

Last week watchdog Physicians for Human Rights said Myanmar risked "catastrophic" levels of conflict with "potential crimes against humanity and/or genocide" if authorities failed to stem anti-Muslim hate speech and a culture of impunity around the clashes.

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