Calm returns to Myanmar town after latest outbreak of sectarian violence

A tense calm returned Monday to a Myanmar town that was ripped apart by sectarian violence, leaving hundreds homeless after Buddhist mobs tore through the small, winding streets torching Muslim-owned houses and stores.

Some waved sticks and clubs as they belted out the national anthem.

Authorities said they had arrested 12 suspects, and security forces were now guarding the mosque in Htan Gone, where some of the victims sought refuge late Saturday and early Sunday.

"We spent the whole night cowering at the back of the mosque," said 70-year old Daw Tin Shwe, adding that the police did not help them. "There was no one there to protect us."

The predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million has been grappling with sectarian violence since the country's military rulers handed over power to a nominally civilian government in 2011. More than 250 people have been killed in the last year and another 140,000 displaced, almost all of them Muslims.

The latest violence is part of a worrying nationalistic trend, fueled by radical monks preaching that the minority Muslim community, representing 4 percent of the population, poses a threat to thousands of years of culture and tradition.

For the first time in decades, celebrations were held in several big cities across the country to commemorate the day in 1961 when then-Prime Minister U Nu signed legislation stating that Buddhism was the national religion. The law, however, is no longer in place.

"We couldn't celebrate this day in the past because people were not very united," said Sandara, a 33-year-old monk sitting in small wooden home on the outskirts of Yangon, the streets lined with yellow, red, blue and white striped religious flags.

"Now things have changed."

Asked how he felt about violence aimed at Muslims, he fired back with a question of his own: "If someone attacks your family, wouldn't you want to do something? We can't accept people who do bad things."

Religious tensions came to the forefront last year in the western state of Rakhine, where 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.

The riot in Htan Gone village, 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 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 on by Buddhist-led mobs and 318 people were left homeless — many of them staying with friends and relatives or at a Muslim Arabic school in the areas.

Since the violence first broke out Myanmar, dozens of people have been arrested, tried and convicted.

Three verdicts were handed down last Friday for Buddhist-led violence in the town of Okkan that left one dead and nine injured in April, Myint Thein, an official with the National Unity Party said Monday.

Dozens of Muslim homes were set on fire in that attack.

One of the suspects got five years in jail and the others seven, he said, saying the men were found guilty of charges ranging from arson to helping plan riots that led to deaths and injuries.