MEIKHTILA, Myanmar – Myanmar’s president declared a state of emergency Friday in a central city shaken by sectarian bloodshed that has killed at least 20 people.
Thousands of minority Muslims fled and overwhelmed riot police crisscrossed the still-burning town seizing machetes and hammers from enraged Buddhist mobs.
Black smoke and flames poured from destroyed buildings in Meikhtila, where the unrest between local Buddhist and Muslim residents erupted Wednesday – the latest challenge to Myanmar’s ever-precarious transition to democratic rule.
Little appeared to be left of some palm tree-lined neighborhoods, where whole plots were reduced to smoldering masses of twisted debris and ash. Broken glass, destroyed motorcycles and overturned tables littered roads beside rows of burnt-out homes and shops, evidence of the widespread chaos of the last two days.
The devastation was reminiscent of strikingly similar scenes last year in western Myanmar, where sectarian violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya left hundreds of people dead. More than 100,000 people are still displaced from that conflict, almost all of them Muslim.
Human rights groups had warned that unrest in the west could spread to other parts of the country, and last year, prominent Buddhist monks rallied against Muslims in the central Myanmar town of Mandalay. The clashes in Meikhtila are the first reported outside of western Myanmar since then.
It was not immediately clear which side bore the brunt of the latest violence, but terrified Muslims, who make about 30 percent of Meikhtila’s 100,000 inhabitants, stayed off the streets Friday as their shops and homes continued to burn and angry Buddhist residents and monks prevented authorities from putting out the blazes.
Trucks of police stood guard outside the blackened, empty hulk of one aqua-colored mosque, one of at least five torched this week by Buddhist gangs.
Win Htein, a local lawmaker from the opposition National League for Democracy, said he had counted at least 20 bodies.
State radio on Friday night released the official totals for casualties and destruction, which normally lag behind the actual figures. It said there were 11 deaths and 39 injuries, and 152 houses, 13 religious buildings, a government office and five vehicles were damaged. No breakdown by religious group was given.
The announcement also called on the public to help find the riot’s instigators and inform the authorities.
Win Htein said 1,200 Muslim families – at least 6,000 people – have fled their homes and taken refuge at a stadium and a police station.
An unknown number of Buddhists, meanwhile, sought refuge inside the city’s shrines.
“The situation is unpredictable and dangerous,” said Sein Shwe, a shop owner. “We don’t feel safe and we have now moved inside a monastery.”
The government’s struggle to contain the violence is proving another major challenge for President Thein Sein’s reformist administration as it attempts to chart a path to democracy after nearly half a century of military rule that once crushed all dissent.
Thein Sein took office two years ago this month, and despite ushering in an era of change, he has faced not only violence in Rakhine state, but an upsurge in fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels in the north and major protests at a northern copper mine where angry residents – emboldened by promises of freedom of expression – have come out to denounce land-grabbing.