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The death toll from recent communal violence in central Burma has risen to 40 after eight more bodies were pulled from the wreckage of a riot-hit town, state media reported on Tuesday.
The clashes were a stark reminder of the challenge that Muslim-Buddhist tensions pose to Burma’s government as it tries to reform the country after decades of iron-fisted military rule ended two years ago.
In a televised statement late on Monday, Burma’s government called for an end to “religious extremism” that it warned could derail the Buddhist-majority country’s reform process.
The quasi-civilian government has faced strong international pressure over the unrest, which according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has displaced more than 12,000 people.
The clashes – apparently triggered by an argument in a gold shop – began on 20 March in Meikhtila, 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of Naypyidaw, with mosques burned, houses razed and charred bodies left lying in the streets.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said the eight new bodies were retrieved from the debris during the clean-up operation over the weekend.
Dozens of people have been detained in connection with the violence, which saw armed rioters – including Buddhist monks – roam the streets, threatening journalists who visited the town.
It was the worst sectarian strife since violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the western state of Arakan last year left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced.
The bloodshed has raised fears that long-standing religious tensions that were largely suppressed during junta rule could now spread to other parts of the country.
After a state of emergency was declared on Friday and the army was sent into the area, an uneasy calm has returned to Meikhtila, where a nighttime curfew has been imposed.
Elsewhere, however, there were signs of fresh trouble over the weekend with violence on Saturday night leaving more than 40 houses and a mosque in ruins in Yamethin township near Naypyidaw, according to a ward official.
Unrest was also reported in several other villages in the area.
The mood has also grown nervous in parts of the country’s commercial capital Rangoon, according to local residents, where the regional government on Monday ordered restaurants or shops selling alcohol to close by 9:00 pm.
According to a report in the New Light newspaper, a group of unnamed persons “who are unwilling to see peace and stability in the country are trying to destabilise peace and tranquility of Yangon (Rangoon)”.