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Originally published Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 7:26 AM

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Myanmar Muslim face uncertain future after attacks

They slept terrified in the fields, watching their homes burn through the night. And when they returned Wednesday, nothing was left but smoldering ash and debris.

Associated Press

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OKKAN, Myanmar —

They slept terrified in the fields, watching their homes burn through the night. And when they returned Wednesday, nothing was left but smoldering ash and debris.

One day after hundreds of rampaging Buddhists armed with bricks stormed a clutch of Muslim villages in the closest explosion of sectarian violence yet to Myanmar's main city, Yangon, newly displaced Muslims combed through the wasteland where their houses once stood, facing a suddenly uncertain future. Unable to go home, many were too fearful of more attacks to leave.

"We ran into the fields and didn't carry anything with us," Hla Myint, a 47-year-old father of eight, said of the mobs who overran his village.

Tears welling in his eyes, he added: "Now, we have nothing left."

One of the 10 people injured in the assaults died overnight, said Thet Lwin, a deputy commissioner of police for the region. Police have so far detained 18 attackers who destroyed 157 homes and shops and at least two mosques in Okkan and three outlying villages, he said. Okkan is just 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Yangon.

The unrest was the first reported since late March, when similar Buddhist-led violence swept the town of Meikthila, further north in centrally Myanmar, killing at least 43 people. It underscored the failure of reformist President Thein Sein's government to curb increasing attacks on minority Muslims in a nation struggling to emerge from half a century of oppressive military rule.

Muslim residents said a mixture of locals and outsiders were responsible for the attacks around Okkan. Police gave no details on who was behind the assault. But a local politician from the pro-government National Union party, Myint Thein, said that members of a Buddhist campaign called "969" were involved.

The movement, which urges Buddhists to shop only at Buddhist stores and avoid marrying, hiring or selling their homes or land to Muslims, is small but has spread rapidly in recent months, and human rights activists say it has helped fuel bloody anti-Muslim pogroms.

Stickers and signs bearing the 969 emblem - each digit enumerates virtues of the Lord Buddha, his teachings and the community of monks - have been popping up on shops, taxis, and buses in Yangon.

Hla Myint said that after the March violence, residents of Okkan began conducting informal security patrols to protect the village. But nothing happened for weeks and authorities told them not to worry.

"Things happened unexpectedly," he told The Associated Press. "When the crowds came, they shouted things like `Don't defend yourselves, we will only destroy the mosque, not your homes, we won't harm you.'"

They burned his village's mosque, and "they destroyed our houses" anyway, he said.

Around 300 police stood guard Wednesday in the area, which was quiet. The town's market was crowded, but Muslims were absent.

It was not immediately clear what would happen to the newly displaced in Okkan. Some were taking refuge in the few houses that were not razed; others simply sat under the shade of trees.

Several Muslims said didn't feel safe, but they would not leave because they feared more attacks elsewhere. They said they didn't trust the police to protect them and wondered how they would survive and get food.

On Tuesday night, they spent the night in the open. Many could be seen late Tuesday, crouching in paddy fields and sitting along roadsides. Some wept.

Khin Maung Than, a Muslim in Okkan, said he recognized some of the attackers but many faces were unfamiliar.

The mobs smashed his shop, stealing watches, breaking glass, and leaving overturned lamps and furniture scattered across the floor.

He said he climbed to the roof to escape and then took refuge with Buddhist neighbors who hid him. Returning to the shop that doubles as his home, he said: "I am speechless. I have never experienced such riots in my life."

The 60-year-old, who is married to a Buddhist woman, said he had heard of last month's violence in Meikhtila, but: "I didn't realize we'd face this because our town was very peaceful."

His wife, San Htay, said police in the town were quickly overwhelmed. They tried to disperse the crowds, she said, and several were injured in the mayhem.

"I can't explain how desperately sad I am now. My heart beats so fast because of fear," she told The Associated Press.

Stopping the spread of sectarian violence has proven a major challenge for Thein Sein's government since it erupted in western Rakhine state last year. Human rights groups have recently accused his administration of failing to crack down on Buddhist extremists as violence has spread closer to the economic capital, Yangon, at times overwhelming riot police who have stood by as machete-wielding crowds attacked Muslims and their property.

Muslims account for about 4 percent of the nation's roughly 60 million people, and during the long era of authoritarian rule, military governments twice drove out hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, while smaller clashes occurred elsewhere. About one third of the nation's population consists of ethnic minority groups, and most have waged wars against the government for autonomy.

Last week, Human Rights Watch issued the most comprehensive and detailed account yet of the violence in Rakhine state. The report accused authorities - including Buddhist monks, local politicians and government officials, and state security forces - of fomenting an organized campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya. Hundreds of people were killed there, and some 125,000 people, mostly Muslims, remain displaced with large swathes of the state effectively segregated along sectarian lines.

On Monday, a government-appointed commission investigating the Rakhine violence issued proposals to ease tensions there - including doubling the number of security forces in the volatile region and introducing family planning programs to stem population growth among minority Muslims.

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Associated Press video journalist Raul Gallego Abellan contributed to this report. Pitman reported from Bangkok.

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