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The recent explosion of religious violence in central Burma is part of a wider communal fracture that threatens to further the fast-changing nation, experts warn.
An altercation over a gold hairpin was apparently all it took to spark deadly rioting in the central town of Meiktila that tore apart Buddhist and Muslim communities who have lived side by side for generations.
Mobs of local men, including Buddhist monks, roamed the streets armed with knives and sticks, while mosques and homes were reduced to ashes before relative calm was restored by army patrols.
Analysts said the violence is the latest sign that the Buddhist-majority nation is struggling to contain festering religious tensions as it emerges from the iron grip of military rule, which ended in 2011.
“The unrest is of concern,” independent analyst Richard Horsey said.
“There are deep faultlines in several parts of the country, and there is a risk of further violence as old prejudices and grievances begin to surface as the country opens up and people have greater freedom of expression than in the past.”
The clashes, which left at least 32 dead and dozens injured, were the worst communal unrest since a wave of Buddhist-Muslim unrest left tens of thousands of mainly Muslim Rohingya displaced in western Arakan state last year.
Pockets of anti-Muslim sentiment have since flared across the country.
“We are in a phase where nationalism is skyrocketing. All the stereotypes projected on the Rohingya have fallen on the Muslims in general,” said independent analyst Mael Raynaud.
The international community has called for dialogue amid fears that the violence could spread, a grave prospect in a country where Muslims account for an estimated four percent of the roughly 60 million population.
But despite the Muslim community’s long history in Burma, they have never been fully integrated into the country.
Renaud Egreteau, a Burmese expert at the University of Hong Kong, said it was difficult for many people to see Christian or Muslims citizens as Burmese.
“Membership of the Burmese nation is acquired by bloodline, and thus race. To be Burmese is primarily to fit into the cultural norms of the Burmese majority, its language and Buddhist religion,” he told AFP .
Burma has been convulsed by several deadly episodes of religious violence in the past, with Arakan state acting as a flashpoint for tensions.
Last year’s violence there left 180 dead and more than 110,000 people displaced, presenting a major humanitarian challenge to the government.
Matthew Smith, of Human Rights Watch , said the animosity aimed at Rohingya and non-Rohingya Muslims in Arakan state has certainly raised tensions throughout the country.
“There is a serious risk the violence will reach more horrific levels elsewhere in the country,” he said.
HRW has accused security forces of failing to protect Muslims in Arakan state , and even participating in abuses.
“It is essential that political and moral leaders in the country do whatever they can to end the violence and ensure calm and accountability, but the ultimate responsibility is with the state, and its record in this area is concerning,” he said.
Both the government and main opposition, led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi , have come under pressure from the international community over perceived weakness in their response to the violence in Arakan state.
The Arakan unrest sparked a firestorm of online vitriol on both sides and observers fear politicians are reluctant to assert leadership on the issue for fear of alienating voters ahead of key 2015 polls, seen as a test of the country’s democratic credentials.
On Friday, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in Meiktila and sent in the military to restore order.
With tensions running high, Egreteau said security forces were needed to keep the communities from tearing themselves apart, with more considered solutions left to a later date.
“The sparks are ready to fly at any moment,” he said.