YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's president on Saturday lifted a state of emergency in the central part of the country put in place after Buddhist-led mobs went on a rampage, killing dozens of Muslims and burning down their shops and homes. Many of the victims were teachers and teenage students from an Islamic school.
The decision to lift the emergency order in the battle-scarred townships of Meikhtila, Mahlaing, Wundwin and Thazi several months ahead of schedule was an indication that "peace and stability" have been restored, said the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
The move came as President Thein Sein was wrapping up a European tour that was aimed in part at cleaning up the image of a country wracked by religious violence. Thein Sein told France 24 TV that allegations of "ethnic cleansing" in the state of Rakhine were not true and were part of a "smear campaign" by outsiders.
The unrest in Meikhtila was sparked by a quarrel at a Muslim-owned gold shop on March 20, but escalated after a group of Muslim men pulled a monk off his motorcycle and burned him to death.
Enraged, Buddhist-led mobs destroyed 12 of the city's 13 mosques and burned down hundreds of homes before marching to a prestigious Islamic school, where they killed 36 teachers and students as police and local officials looked on.
The violence – which left a total of 44 people dead – went unchecked until a state of emergency was declared March 22.
It imposed a 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew and barred assembly of more than five people. It also allowed local authorities to seek military assistance to help bring the situation under control.
"Lifting the emergency order is an important step, but the critical question is what is the government's plan to foster reconciliation between Buddhist and Muslim communities in these areas," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, noting that 7,000 displaced people are still afraid to return to their homes to start rebuilding their lives.
"Just hoping for the best is not much of a plan," he said.
Myanmar only recently emerged from a half-century of isolation and brutal military rule.
The struggle to contain tensions between the country's Muslim and Buddhist communities – which has killed more than 250 people in the last year – is proving another major challenge for Thein Sein's reformist administration as it attempts to chart a path to democracy.
Many of those targeted have been ethnic Rohingya Muslims, who have lived in Myanmar for generations but are still viewed by many Buddhists as foreign interlopers from Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch accused the government in an April report of an "ethnic cleansing" campaign.
It said officials, community leaders and Buddhist monks organized and encouraged mobs to target the minority group, sometimes with the backing of security forces.
Robertson stood by the report's findings Saturday, and disputed Thein Sein's allegations of a smear campaign against the government.
"Thein Sein's dismissals of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state have zero credibility," he said. "Don't forget this is the man who last year tried to persuade the visiting U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to take all the Rohingya out of Burma. Thein Sein's self-appointed investigation commission didn't even bother to address accountability for the violence in 2012, and he's continually looked the other way as his security forces have continued their abuses and covered up their atrocities against the Rohingya."