MEIKHTILA, Myanmar – The top UN envoy to Myanmar on Sunday toured a central city destroyed in the country's worst explosion of Buddhist-Muslim violence this year, calling on the government to punish those responsible for a tragedy that left dozens of corpses piled in the streets, some of them charred beyond recognition.
Vijay Nambiar, the U.N. secretary-general's special adviser on Myanmar, also visited some of the nearly 10,000 people driven from their homes after sectarian unrest shook the city of Meikhtila for several days this week. Most of the displaced are minority Muslims, who appeared to have suffered the brunt of the violence as armed Buddhist mobs roamed city.
Nambiar said he was encouraged to learn that some individuals in both communities had bravely helped each other and that religious leaders were now advocating peace. He said the people he spoke to believe the violence "was the work of outsiders," but he gave no details.
"There is a certain degree of fear and anxiety among the people, but there is no hatred," Nambiar said after visiting both groups on Sunday and promising the United Nations would provide as much help as it can to get the city back on its feet. "They feel a sense of community and that it is a very good thing because they have worked together and lived together."
But he added: "It is important to catch the perpetrators. It is important that they be caught and punished."
Nambiar's visit came one day after the army took control of the city to enforce a tense calm after President Thein Sein ordered a state of emergency here.
Late Saturday, the government put the death toll in the violence at 32, according to state television, which reported that bodies had been found as authorities began cleaning up the area.
The bloodshed marked the first sectarian unrest to spread into Myanmar's heartland since two similar episodes rocked western Rakhine state last year. It is the latest challenge to efforts to reform the Southeast Asian country after the long-ruling military ceded power two years ago to a civilian government led by retired army officers.
There are concerns the violence could spread, and the bloodshed has raised questions about the government's failure to rein in anti-Muslim sentiment in a predominantly Buddhist country where even monks have armed themselves and taken advantage of newfound freedoms to stage anti-Muslim rallies.
In Meikthila, at least five mosques were set ablaze from Wednesday to Friday. The majority of homes and shops burned in the city also belonged to Muslims, and most of the displaced are Muslim.
During his trip, Nambiar visited some of the thousands of Muslim residents at a city stadium, where they have huddled since fleeing their homes. He later visited around 100 Buddhists at a local monastery who have also been displaced.
No new violence was reported overnight, but residents remained anxious.
"The city is calm and some shops have reopened, but many still live in fear. Some still dare not return to their homes," said Win Htein, an opposition lawmaker from the city.
Myanma Ahlin, a state-run newspaper, carried a statement from Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindu leaders expressing sorrow for the loss of life and property and calling on Buddhist monks to help ease tensions.
"We would like to call upon the government to provide sufficient security and to protect the displaced people and to investigate and take legal measures as urgently as possible," the statement said.
Muslims, who make up about 30 percent of Meikhtila's 100,000 inhabitants, have stayed off the streets since their shops and homes were burned and Buddhist mobs armed with machetes and swords began roaming the city.
Little appeared to be left of some palm tree-lined neighborhoods, where the legs of victims could be seen poking out from smoldering masses of twisted debris and ash. Broken glass, charred cars and motorcycles and overturned tables littered roads beside rows of burned-out homes and shops, evidence of the widespread chaos that swept the town.
The struggle to contain the violence has proven another major challenge to Thein Sein's reformist administration, which has faced an upsurge in fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels in the north and major protests at a northern copper mine where angry residents — emboldened by promises of freedom of expression — have come out to denounce land grabbing.
The devastation was reminiscent of last year's clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that left hundreds of people dead and more than 100,000 displaced — almost all of them Muslim. The Rohingya are widely perceived as illegal migrants and foreigners from Bangladesh; the Muslim population of Meikhtila is believed to be mostly of Indian origin.
Chaos began Wednesday after an argument broke out between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers. Once news spread that a Muslim man had killed a Buddhist monk, Buddhist mobs rampaged through a Muslim neighborhood and the situation quickly spiraled out of control.
Residents and activists said the police did little to stop the rioters or reacted too slowly, allowing the violence to escalate.
Occasional isolated violence involving Myanmar's majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities has occurred for decades, even under the authoritarian military governments that ruled the country from 1962 to 2011.