Calm returns to violence-scarred Myanmar town

HTAN GONE, Myanmar (AP) — A tense calm returned Monday to a town in northwestern Myanmar that was ripped apart by sectarian violence that left hundreds homeless after Buddhist mobs tore through the small winding streets, torching Muslim-owned houses and business.

Twelve people have been arrested, said Myint Naing, an opposition lawmaker who toured the area, and security forces were guarding the mosque in Htan Gone where some terrified victims sought refuge during the weekend attack.

“We spent the whole night cowering at the back of the mosque,” said 70-year old Daw Tin Shwe, still in a state of disbelief, not only at the frenzy of the crowd, but also at alleged police inaction.

“There was no one there to protect us,” Shwe said as she cried while speaking to a reporter.

The predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million has been grappling with religious violence since the country’s military rulers handed over power to a nominally civilian government in 2011.

The unrest — which has killed more than 250 people and left 140,000 others displaced in the last year — began in the western state of Rakhine in June 2012, where nationalist Buddhists accuse the Rohingya Muslim community of illegally entering the country and encroaching on their land.

The violence, on a smaller scale but still deadly, spread earlier this year to other parts of the country, fueling deep-seeded prejudices against the Islamic minority and threatening Myanmar’s fragile transition to democracy.

Almost all of the victims have been Muslims, often attacked as security forces stood by.

The hours-long riot in Htan Gone village, located 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of the town of Kantbalu in the region of Sagaing, began late Saturday after a crowd surrounded a police station, demanding that a Muslim man accused of trying to sexually assault a young Buddhist woman be handed over.

The rioters, some carrying swords and sticks, dispersed after security forces arrived early Sunday, shooting into the air. State-run media reported that two people, including a fire man were injured during the incident.

Myint Naing, who represents constituents in Htan Gone and surrounding villages, said the Muslim man accused of sexual assault was among the 12 people arrested.

The other suspects were all Buddhists, he said.

In total 48 houses were burned down by Buddhist-led mobs and 318 people were left homeless — many of them currently staying with friends and relatives or at a Muslim Arabic school in the area.

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