MEIKHTILA, Myanmar – The United Nations’ top envoy to Myanmar on Sunday toured a central city that was destroyed in the country’s worst explosion of Buddhist-Muslim violence this year, visiting some of the nearly 10,000 people forced from their homes after unrest left dozens of corpses in the streets, some of them charred beyond recognition.
The visit to Meikhtila of Vijay Nambiar, the U.N. secretary-general’s special adviser on Myanmar, came one day after the army took control of the city to enforce a tense calm after President Thein Sein ordered a state of emergency here.
The bloodshed marked the first sectarian unrest to spread into the nation’s heartland since two similar episodes rocked western Rakhine state last year. It is the latest challenge to efforts to reform the Southeast Asian country after the long-ruling military ceded power two years ago to a civilian government led by retired army officers.
There are concerns the violence could spread, and the bloodshed has raised questions about the government’s failure to rein in anti-Muslim sentiment in a predominantly Buddhist country where even monks have armed themselves and taken advantage of newfound freedoms to stage anti-Muslim rallies.
As in Rakhine, minority Muslims again appeared to have borne the brunt of the violence. At least five mosques were set ablaze in Meikhtila, the majority of homes and shops burned in the city belonged to Muslims, and most of the displaced were Muslim.
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.
No new violence was reported overnight, but residents remain fearful.
“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 town.
Late Saturday, the government put the death toll at 32, according to state television, which reported that bodies had been found as authorities began cleaning up the area.
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.
Residents complained that police had stood by and done little to stop the mayhem. But “calm has been restored since troops took charge of security,” said Win Htein.
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.
Local businessman San Hlaing said he counted 28 bodies this week, all men, piled in groups around the town.
The struggle to contain the violence has proven another major challenge to Thein Sein’s reformist administration, which has faced 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.
The devastation was reminiscent of last year’s clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that left hundreds of people dead and more than 100,000 displaced – almost all of them Muslim. The Rohingya are widely perceived as illegal migrants and foreigners from Bangladesh; the Muslim population of Meikhtila is believed to be mostly of Indian origin.
This week’s 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. “They were like scarecrows in a paddy field,” San Hlaing said.
Khin Maung Swe, a 72-year-old Muslim lawyer who said he lost all his savings, complained that authorities did nothing to disperse the mobs.
“If the military and police had showed up in force, those troublemakers would have run away,” he said, inspecting the remains of his damaged home.
San Htwe, a 39-year-old housewife, said she could see police and soldiers “everywhere” in Meikhtila on Saturday but did not feel at ease. “I’m afraid that the situation will be like in Rakhine” – where sectarian tensions have split an entire state and Buddhist and Muslim communities live in near-total segregation, constantly fearing more violence.
Occasional isolated violence involving Myanmar’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.