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MALAWI-VIOLENCE Jul-20-2011 (490 words) xxxi

Malawi violence stems from government being out of touch, says priest

By Bronwen Dachs
Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) -- Violent anti-government protests in Malawi's main cities are the result of a government out of touch with its people, a Catholic Church official said.

"While fuel shortages were the spark for the demonstrations, the underlying issues are about the government not listening to the plight of the people," Father George Buleya, general secretary of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi, said in a July 20 telephone interview from the capital, Lilongwe.

President Bingu wa Mutharika's government has raised taxes and "won't explain why there is a chronic shortage of fuel, except to say that the country has no foreign exchange" reserves, he said.

"There doesn't seem to be a solution in sight," Father Buleya said, noting that the government "is not admitting to mistakes it has made."

Riots broke out in several cities in Malawi July 20 after police tried to disperse protesters.

In Lilongwe, protesters burned cars, offices and shops belonging to ministers and politicians from Mutharika's ruling Democratic Progressive Party, according to the British news agency Reuters.

The incidents of violence "were mostly isolated, and I don't think there will be ongoing violence," Father Buleya said, noting that some looting occurred in densely populated areas.

In the late afternoon, the streets in the capital's city center were deserted, he said, noting that he saw a group of about 200 people marching toward Malawi's parliament, chanting anti-Mutharika slogans.

At midday, the bishops' conference and most other city center businesses closed their Lilongwe offices for "fear of violence," Father Buleya said.

The Episcopal Conference of Malawi and the Malawi Council of Churches made a joint appeal July 19 for everyone to refrain from violence. They asked the police to protect citizens and avoid actions that could worsen the situation.

The government obtained a court injunction late July 19 to stop the protests, but this was overruled midday July 20.

"It's likely that the demonstrations would have been peaceful if there had been no interference" from the courts, Father Buleya said, noting that the "marches should have been allowed and the police should have guaranteed the safety of the marchers."

Montfort Father Piergiorgio Gamba told the Vatican missionary news agency Fides that Malawians took to the streets because the price of food increases daily and transport is becoming increasingly expensive.

Also, "there is no electricity for more than six hours a day ... no fuel, diesel and petrol, which can be bought on the black market at double the price," Father Gamba told Fides.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an estimated 75 percent of the population living on less than $1 a day.

Late last year, Malawi's bishops accused Mutharika of not consulting on issues of national importance.

In a pastoral letter, they expressed their concerns about the lack of democracy in the country, threats to media freedom and the politicizing of food security issues, among others.

END


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