Thousands of Burmese remain homeless after communal clashes

Close to 4,000 people in Meiktila remain displaced as residents of this otherwise quiet Burmese university town mark the six-month anniversary of one of Myanmar's worst incidents of sectarian violence in decades.

"We're desperate to learn when we can return to our homes," Yee Yee Win, a 40-year-old Muslim woman, told IRIN as she prepared dinner for her seven-member family in an overcrowded camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The camp is set up within the grounds of the local water authorities and houses some 870 residents.

"We don't want to live in this camp any longer. We want to go back as soon as possible," her husband, Than Win, jumped in.

On 20 March 2013, a heated argument between the Muslim owner of a gold shop in Meiktila, central Myanmar, and his Buddhists customers escalated. Crowds were soon setting fire to businesses, religious buildings and houses. Hundreds of homes and buildings were destroyed, including at least five mosques.

"Police allegedly stood by as angry mobs beat, stabbed and burned to death some 43 people," said Tomás Ojea Quintana, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights.

Of the over 12,000 affected people at the onset of the unrest, 3,951 remain displaced (851 Buddhists and 3,100 Muslims) and are currently living in five overcrowded camps and shelters, Meiktila District authorities told IRIN.

Their displacement came on top of the devastating sectarian violence that struck Myanmar's western Rakhine State in 2012, which left 167 people dead and more than 10,000 buildings and homes destroyed.

More than 176,000 people are in need following two rounds of communal violence in June and October 2012, including more than 140,000, mostly Muslim Rohingyas, displaced and scattered across more than 70 camps and camp-like settings in 10 townships, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Many of the Meiktila displaced have long since returned to their homes, but those whose homes were completely destroyed face a more uncertain future.

"How can we rebuild? We don't have any money," said Ma Ei, 31, a displaced Buddhist resident and mother of three, at the Magigone Monastery, which shelters 220 displaced, including her family, just a stone's throw from where her home once stood.

Government plans are being drafted for a series of housing units to be constructed to accommodate those left homeless.

Return to normalcy?

Though the homeless seem unaware of what the government's resettlement plans are, those who have returned to their homes are slowly picking up thepieces of their lives. "The situation is close to normal. We're doing our best to restore the situation," Win Htain, a Meiktila lawmaker, maintained.

Many displaced remain unemployed. "There are no jobs," said Tin Aung, 66, a homeless Muslim man who works as a carpenter.

Buddhist as well as Muslim businessmen believe the local economy of this central Burmese town of 100,000, one-third of which are Muslim, will need time to recover.

Zarni, the owner of a small motorcycle spare parts shop, says business has never been worse. "Only 50 percent of my customers come today," the Muslim shop-owner whose inventory was looted during the conflict, lamented.

Other small businesses, like Daw Nu's grocery store, are also struggling. "Compared to before, I earn just one-third of my previous income now," said the Buddhist woman.

Yet residents of both communities note the small but encouraging signs that inter-communal relations might be improving, despite their being divided just six months earlier.

"We exchange smiles whenever we meet in the street or in the market. Why should there be problems between us?" asked Ma Win, 40, a Buddhist woman. It is a sentiment echoed by others.

"There is no reason to hate each other. Why can't we be like before?" asked Mar Mar, a 52-year-old Muslim woman whose Buddhist neighbours looked after her property when she fled to safety during the violence.

According to a report [ ] issued one month earlier by Physicians for Human Rights, the Burmese government needs to do more to address anti-Muslim propaganda and a culture of impunity regarding religious violence, or risk "catastrophic" levels of conflict.

While the current situation appears calm, a failure to properly investigate and deal with the root causes of the tensions risks further clashes, the US-based group warned.