AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This week, the European Union recognized reforms in Myanmar, also known as Burma, by lifting all sanctions except for an arms embargo. But human rights groups were quick to criticize the decision. They're concerned about recent violence between Buddhist and Muslims, and they say the government is either negligent in failing to stop it or worse, complicit.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on one town's struggle to understand the violence that consumed it last month.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: It's a tranquil street scene in the town of Meiktila. A woman presses juice from sugar cane while customers loll around in the midday heat. The town is right in the center of the country, where white cows graze among palm trees and pointy pagodas. But just down the street, large areas have been reduced to heaps of charred rubble. It's debris left from three days of rioting between Buddhists and Muslims last month. Muslims account for a third of the town's population. Their homes and mosques were the worst hit.
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KUHN: Across the street from me now is the Thiri Mingalar Mosque, and it's been partially demolished. The facade is blackened. Some of the minarets have been smashed. A lot of the windows are broken.
Violence among religious groups was pretty much suppressed during more than half a century of military rule. What shocked many folks about the riots was that their apparent cause was no bigger than a hairpin. Local media reports say it began when a Buddhist couple went to a jewelry store to sell a gold hairpin. The Muslim store owners damaged the tiny ornament. An argument ensued and the store owners beat up their customers.
The store owners were recently sentenced to 14 years each in jail. Soon after, 29-year-old Muslim food vendor, Mohammed Sharif, says he saw Buddhist mobs in the streets, shouting as if they were drunk.
MOHAMMED SHARIF: (Through Translator) I saw they were armed and they were shouting: kill the Kalar. They were carrying swords.
KUHN: Kalar is a racist slur directed at people of darker skin color.
Many Muslims saw the mobs and fled to a local stadium. That's where I met Muslim resident Win Sint Soe. He says that a group of men offered to escort his brother and his brother's family to safety. But he says it was a trick.
WIN SINT SOE: (Through Translator) They gave my brother a choice of who in his family would live. He told his wife to go and not look back. My brother sacrificed his life. The police later arrested one of the murderers.
KUHN: Who killed your brother?
SOE: (Through Translator) My sister-in-law knows the people who did it. I don't know their names.
KUHN: U Win Htein, who represents Meiktila in parliament, says that at first, armed mobs prevented police from rescuing victims. He says he witnessed a Buddhist mob attacking an Islamic school. He says he asked the police to intervene, but the Muslims were dragged out and killed while the police just stood there and watched.
U WIN HTEIN: I saw seven people killed in front of my eyes. So I felt disgusted, because they were like statues, just standing there.
KUHN: After three days of rioting, President Thein Sein sent in the army. But by then, 46 people had been killed and 1,500 homes destroyed.
While some people accuse security forces of inaction, others blame them for secretly stirring up the unrest, either to distract from other problems or to create a mess that they could then take credit for cleaning up.
The food vendor, Mohammed Sharif, says that he trusts his Buddhists neighbors - that's why he's staying at home and not in the stadium. And that's why he believes the violence was instigated by outsiders.
SHARIF: (Through Translator) I've lived here since I was born. Muslims and Buddhists have been living together and there have never been any problems. So I feel that someone's manipulating things behind the scenes.
KUHN: So far, nobody has presented hard evidence of outside agitators. Some reports blame Buddhist extremists for inciting the riots with anti-Muslim hate speech. But many Buddhists reject that interpretation of their religion. Mohammed Sharif's neighbor is a Buddhist man whose first name is Min Tun.
MIN TUN: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: This violence, he says, is a failure of Buddhist mindfulness, wisdom and loving-kindness.
Min Tun asked that we not reveal his family name. That's because he is sheltering a Muslim friend in his home.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yangon.
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