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Myanmar riots raise concerns about escalating sectarian tensions

The clashes have intensified fears that last year's sectarian violence between Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya minority in western Burma is now spreading to the Burmese heartland.

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Myanmar fire fighters put out fires in a burning building following ethnic unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in Meikhtila, Mandalay division, north of Yangon, Myanmar, Friday.

Khin Maung Win/AP

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Rights groups are asking Myanmar lawmakers to "change their approach" on how they handle sectarian violence after three days of fighting between Muslims and Buddhists in central Myanmar has reduced a town to smokey rubble, leaving at least 20 dead and forcing thousands to flee.

Today Myanmar’s President Thein Sein issued a state of emergency to quell violence in Meikhtila and four nearby towns in central Myanmar. But reports late on Friday indicated that though the violence has receded, the situation is still tense. The government is sending military backup for the police, who have not been able to stop the fighting.

The violence and need for military backup calls into question the stability of Myanmar's nascent transition to democracy after a semi-civilian government in 2010 ended nearly five decades of military rule. And the lack of progress on improving minority rights has many observers up in arms.

"Governments are meant to guarantee rights, ensure that people are treated equally before the law, that nondiscrimination is the rule of the land, and that minorities have their rights protected," says says Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. "After seeing this [violence in Meikhtila], would anyone be confident in saying that the government is doing a good job?"

Led by reformist President Thein Sein, the country has undergone various economic and political reforms since its days under military rule  – including the lifting of major censorship regulations and the release of many political prisoners – but it has also witnessed a growing tension between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims, who comprise roughly 5 percent of the total population of some 60 million. 

The violence began Wednesday in Meikhtila, a town roughly 80 miles north of the capital Naypyidaw, after an argument between a Muslim shopkeeper and his Buddhist customers reportedly erupted and spiraled into a street brawl. Soon Buddhist mobs were roaming the streets with sticks and swords and setting buildings ablaze. 

Many fear that the situation in Meikhtila could be a reprise of the type of violence not seen since last year in Rakhine state – which borders Bangladesh. Hundreds were killed and more than 100,000 left homeless after fighting broke out between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in June and October.

A stateless minority, the Rohingya are not recognized by either Bangladesh or Myanmar, and thousands of those living in Myanmar have fled to neighboring countries, often in rickety boats, for the promise of a better life abroad. 

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Exact numbers of those killed and injured since Wednesday in Meikhtila are still unknown, but the numbers range from 20 to more than 100. 

Whatever the figure, say rights groups, the culture of impunity surrounding ethnic violence needs to end – and lawmakers like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has remained largely silent on how to the end ethnic violence racking the country in recent months, need to speak up. 

"Staying silent is clearly not working, because in that vacuum, those who are inciting more violence are free to operate when they need to be challenged and tackled head on," says Mark Farmaner of rights group Burma Campaign UK. 

"There needs to be a change of approach not just from Suu Kyi,” he says, “but from all the political and religious leaders in the country to acknowledge that there is this growing anti-Muslim feeling in the country."

Friday's state of emergency was issued the same day Thein Sein met with Google executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, visiting the country to encourage private investment in its telecommunications systems.

Mr. Schmidt told a crowd in Yangon that the Internet could help politicians "get a much better idea of what your citizens are thinking about" and that "the Internet, once in place, guarantees communication ­– and empowerment becomes the law and practice of your country."

But for many of those who feel they are being targeted indiscriminately for their ethnicity, that empowerment could seem very far away, says Mr. Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

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