RANGOON — A senior government official has confirmed that at least five people have died since communal violence erupted on Wednesday between Buddhists and Muslims in the central Burmese town of Meikhtila, with local sources saying the figure could be much higher.
President’s Office spokesperson Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy late Thursday that the number of confirmed dead was five—a figure that was earlier confirmed by sources in the town.
“The situation is still tense there and we’ve deployed between 600 and
700 police officers,” he said, adding that 39 people have been injured in the violence.
However, a senior officer at Meikhtila District Police Office told an Irrawaddy reporter that the bodies of 14 people who died during the riots were found “on the streets” Thursday morning.
Local sources also said that hundreds of people had clashed in the streets and several buildings, including two mosques, were destroyed. Riots continued on Thursday evening and hundreds of people have reportedly fled the town, while several hundred Muslims were still stuck in the town center.
According to the police officer, as of 6 pm Thursday, inter-communal clashes continued across the town. He added that between 200 and 300 Muslim townspeople were near the town’s Police Station No. 2, where they were seeking police protection. Officers were trying to bring the group to safety, the policeman said.
In Meikhtila, a town located some 152 km south of Mandalay, a dispute between a Muslim gold shop owner and a Buddhist customer reportedly turned violent early Wednesday afternoon.
The fight attracted a large crowd and a brawl ensued involving about 200 people, who went on to destroy six shops starting around 2 pm, according to a report placed on the Burmese police’s Facebook page last night.
Police officers were deployed, but violence erupted again Wednesday evening and rioters destroyed and burned several buildings, including nearby mosques, the report said.
Win Htein, a National League for Democracy (NLD) MP for Meikhtila, said early Thursday afternoon that at least five people had died during the clashes and 27 people were seriously injured.
He said NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi had contacted local authorities, telling them to quell the violence as soon as possible. “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi urged the Mandalay Police Chief to take serious action as they’ve imposed a curfew. She said: ‘Don’t sit by and watch. Act in accordance with the law,’” according to Win Htein.
Staff at Meikhtila Public Hospital also told a reporter on Thursday afternoon that five people had died there as a result of the riots.
An officer from Meikhtila’s Police Station No.3 confirmed some of the events in a phone call with The Irrawaddy on Thursday morning.
“Two mosques and an Islamic religious school nearby were destroyed. A Buddhist monk and another man succumbed to their injuries at the hospital around 11 pm yesterday,” he said, without explaining how the two had been injured.
“Now we’ve imposed a curfew and everything is under control,” the officer said at the time.
A local resident said that despite the curfew and the increased security presence, the situation in Meikhtila remained unstable and tensions were mounting. He said some 1,000 people had gathered on Thursday morning to besiege the town’s See Khun Gyi quarter, where many Muslims live.
The resident, who declined to be named, said both Buddhist and Muslim residents feared the violence might spread through the town, adding that several hundred people had fled Meikhtila.
“We have to take away the children and women to some distant villages. We are extremely frightened now, so we are running out of the town,” said the man.
Leaders of the activist group the 88 Generation Students traveled to the town in order to find a way to quell the communal unrest.
Min Ko Naing, one of the group’s leaders, said in a statement that they are worried that religious and racial riots will spread to other parts of the country, as some people might seize on the incident to attempt to further inflame religious tensions.
Min Ko Naing also said local authorities should protect properties from the rioters and not just stand by and watch the riots unfold. “As there are human beings, there are problems. It is better to solve this conflict within the law,” he added.
According to Min Ko Naing, 10 people were being treated at the public hospital in Meikhtila Township for injuries sustained during the riots.
On Wednesday, the government reportedly immediately formed an investigation commission to find out what caused the riots. The commission is chaired by the Border Affairs and Security Minister and includes the Meikhtila District adminstrator, an MP as well as senior police officers from Meikhtila Districts and Mandalay Division.
The incident is the latest flare-up of inter-communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma. Since June 2012 there have been recurrent waves of violence between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Burma’s Arakan State, which have killed scores of people and displaced 110,000 villagers, mostly Rohingyas.
In recent months there have been several reports of inter-communal clashes in other parts of Burma, but no one was reportedly killed in these incidents.