Violence shakes western Myanmar as president visits

YANGON - Fresh sectarian violence erupted in western Myanmar Tuesday, leaving one person dead and homes set ablaze as President Thein Sein made a rare visit to the troubled region.

Attacks against Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar have overshadowed widely praised political reforms overseen by the former general since military rule ended in 2011.

Thein Sein, making his first trip to Rakhine state as president, was due to hold meetings with Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities during his two-day visit, according to a presidential office official.

"The main focus of the trip is the communal violence," said the official, who asked not to be named.

Security was being strengthened in the Thandwe area, which Thein Sein is due to visit on Wednesday, officials said.

The latest unrest follows an argument over a parking space near a Muslim home last week which triggered arson attacks against property owned by local Kaman Muslims, according to the authorities.

"An old woman was killed during the clashes and houses were burned," a police official told AFP, requesting anonymity.

Around 250 people have been killed and more than 140,000 left homeless in several outbreaks of violence around the country since June 2012, mostly in Rakhine.

Thein Sein, a former junta premier turned president, spent Tuesday visiting a different area of Rakhine populated mainly by stateless Rohingya Muslims.

Clashes in Rakhine state in June and October last year left about 200 people dead, mostly Rohingya who are denied citizenship by Myanmar and viewed by the government and many local people as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The conflict has since spiralled, with members of the wider Muslim community targeted in incidents across the country.

The International Crisis Group think-tank warned Tuesday that unless there is an effective government response and change in societal attitudes, the violence could spread and jeopardise the country's transition.

"At a moment of historic reform and opening, Myanmar cannot afford to become hostage to intolerance and bigotry," said Jim Della-Giacoma, ICG's Asia programme director.

"Those who are spreading messages of intolerance and hatred must not go unchallenged. Otherwise, this issue could come to define the new Myanmar, tarnishing its international image and threatening the success of its transition away from decades of authoritarianism."

In several eruptions of unrest in Myanmar, armed mobs including robed monks have rampaged through villages attacking local Muslims and torching homes. Anti-Muslim rhetoric, spread by radical Buddhist monks, has been on the rise, sparking international concern.

Last week visiting members of the Elders - former world leaders led by ex-US president Jimmy Carter - appealed for an end to impunity over a wave of anti-Muslim attacks.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and deputy chair of The Elders, warned it could take decades to overcome "the ingrained prejudices promoted by extremist voices in parts of the country".

Rights groups have in the past accused Myanmar security forces of complicity in the violence - an allegation denied by the authorities.

Thousands of Rohingya boat people - including women and children - have fled the former junta-ruled country since last year, mostly heading for Malaysia on a perilous sea voyage.

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