MEIKHTILA — Sectarian clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma spread to at least two other towns in the country’s heartland over the weekend, undermining government efforts to quash an eruption of violence that has killed dozens of people and displaced 10,000 more.
President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the region on Friday and deployed army troops to the worst hit city, Meikhtila. But even as soldiers were able to impose order there after several days of anarchy that saw armed Buddhists torch the city’s Muslim quarters, unrest was reported in two other towns to the south.
Late Sunday, state television said that mobs burned down a mosque and 50 homes on Saturday in Yamethin, about 64 kilometers from Meikhtila, and another mosque and several buildings were also set ablaze in Lewei, further south near the capital, Naypyitaw.
The government has put the total death toll at 32, and authorities say they have detained at least 35 people allegedly involved in arson and violence in the region.
The spread of violence is posing major challenged to stability as Thein Sein’s administration, led by retired military officers, struggles to reform the Southeast Asian country after half a century of army rule officially ended two years ago.
Two similar episodes rocked western Arakan State last year, pitting ethnic Arakan Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims who are widely denigrated as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and are denied passports as a result. The Muslim population of central Burma, by contrast, is mostly of Indian origin and does not face the same questions over nationality.
Analysts say the emergence of sectarian conflict here is a worrying development, one that indicates violent anti-Muslim sentiment has spread unabated into the country’s heartland. Muslims make up about four percent of the predominantly Buddhist country’s roughly 60 million people.
The bloodshed “shows that inter-communal tensions in Burma are not just limited to the Rakhine [Arakan] and Rohingya in northern Rakhine state,” said Jim Della-Giacoma of the International Crisis Group.
“Burma is a country with dozens of localized fault lines and grievances that were papered over during the authoritarian years that we are just beginning to see and understand. It is a paradox of transitions that greater freedom does allows these local conflicts to resurface.”
“If a democratic state is the nation’s goal, they need to find a place for all its people as equal citizens,” Della-Giacoma said. “Given the country’s history, it won’t be easy.”
On Sunday, Vijay Nambiar, the UN secretary-general’s special adviser on Burma, toured Meikhtila and called on the government to punish those responsible.
He also visited some of the nearly 10,000 people driven from their homes in the unrest. Most of the displaced are minority Muslims, who appeared to have suffered the brunt of the violence as armed Buddhist mobs roamed city.
Nambiar said he was encouraged to learn that some individuals in both communities had bravely helped each other and that religious leaders were now advocating peace. He said the people he spoke to believe the violence “was the work of outsiders,” but he gave no details.
“There is a certain degree of fear and anxiety among the people, but there is no hatred,” Nambiar said after visiting both groups on Sunday and promising the United Nations would provide as much help as it can to get the city back on its feet. “They feel a sense of community and that it is a very good thing because they have worked together and lived together.”
But he added: “It is important to catch the perpetrators. It is important that they be caught and punished.”
In Meikthila, at least five mosques were set ablaze from Wednesday to Friday. The majority of homes and shops burned in the city also belonged to Muslims, and most of the displaced are Muslim. Dozens of corpses were piled in the streets, some of them charred beyond recognition.
During his trip, Nambiar visited some of the thousands of Muslim residents at a city stadium, where they have huddled since fleeing their homes. He later visited around 100 Buddhists at a local monastery who have also been displaced.
“The city is calm and some shops have reopened, but many still live in fear. Some still dare not return to their homes,” said Win Htein, an opposition lawmaker from the city.
Myanma Ahlin, a state-run newspaper, carried a statement from Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindu leaders expressing sorrow for the loss of life and property and calling on Buddhist monks to help ease tensions.
“We would like to call upon the government to provide sufficient security and to protect the displaced people and to investigate and take legal measures as urgently as possible,” the statement from the Interfaith Friendship Organization said.
Muslims, who make up about 30 percent of Meikhtila’s 100,000 inhabitants, have stayed off the streets since their shops and homes were burned and Buddhist mobs armed with machetes and swords began roaming the city.
Little appeared to be left of some palm tree-lined neighborhoods, where the legs of victims could be seen poking out from smoldering masses of twisted debris and ash. Broken glass, charred cars and motorcycles and overturned tables littered roads beside rows of burned-out homes and shops, evidence of the widespread chaos that swept the town.
Chaos began Wednesday after an argument broke out between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers. Once news spread that a Muslim man had killed a Buddhist monk, Buddhist mobs rampaged through a Muslim neighborhood and the situation quickly spiraled out of control.
Residents and activists said the police did little to stop the rioters or reacted too slowly, allowing the violence to escalate.
Occasional isolated violence involving Burma’s majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities has occurred for decades, even under the authoritarian military governments that ruled the country from 1962 to 2011.