YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — At least five people have died and a mosque has been burned in two days of rioting in a central Myanmar town triggered by an argument between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers, officials said Thursday.
There was fear the number of dead would rise because the violence in the town of Meikhtila was continuing.
The violence is the worst civil unrest in Myanmar since clashes last year between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in the country's west left more than 100,000 people homeless and about 200 dead.
An employee of Meikhtila General Hospital said Thursday that five people had died in the current violence, with 32 admitted with injuries. Three bodies were sent to the hospital Wednesday night and two people among those being treated died, said the employee, Amar Yee. The dead included one Buddhist monk, two local Buddhist residents and two Muslim ones.
As nightfall approached Thursday, the situation remained tense, although a curfew was put in force for a second night. But there was confusion even among police about when it was supposed to take effect.
"At the moment, people are gathering here and there in groups downtown," Tin Mg Thin, a warrant officer from Meikhtila Police Station No. 3, told The Associated Press. "Some parts of the town still have structures burning. We opened a safety camp at Police Station No. 1. The police are patrolling and guarding some points. We are awaiting orders from above."
Several Muslim-owned shops and at least one mosque were burned Wednesday.
"People are going crazy, especially young people," said a Meikhtila resident, speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety. "It's hard to stop them. Some Muslims run to the safety camps and some run into the fields near town."
She said some houses belonging to Muslim residents had been destroyed, including one of her neighbors'.
"We don't dare to leave our home as burning and riots are going on outside," she said. "The biggest mosque in town burned to the ground today. It had been burning since yesterday, but no one dared to put out the fire and the rioters wouldn't let others put it out."
Win Htein, a Meikhtila member of parliament from the opposition National League for Democracy, said it seemed likely that the actual death toll was higher than five.
"I saw three dead bodies myself. And my people also found some bodies," he said by phone. "Even though the curfew has been imposed since yesterday, the police seem a bit hesitant to control the rioters as they don't have much experience on handling riots."
Occasional isolated violence involving Myanmar's majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities has occurred for decades. But the risk of spreading violence was underlined last year by the violence in the western state of Rakhine. Rakhine Buddhists allege that Rohingya are mostly illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The Muslim population of Meikhtila is believed to be mostly of Indian origin, and although religious tensions are longstanding, the incident sparking the violence seemed to be a small and isolated dispute.
Under the military governments that ruled Myanmar from 1962 until 2011, ethnic and religious unrest was typically hushed up, an approach made easier in pre-Internet days, when there was a state monopoly on daily newspapers, radio and television, backed by tough censorship of other media.
But since an elected government took power in 2011, people have been using the Internet and social media in increasing numbers, and the press has been unshackled, with censorship mostly dropped and privately owned daily newspapers expected to hit the streets in the next few months.
The civilian government of President Thein Sein is constrained from using open force to quell unrest because it needs foreign approval in order to woo aid and investment. The previous military regime had no such compunctions about using force, and was ostracized by the West for its human rights abuses.
The United States, which had been the harshest critic of the military regime but now is encouraging the democratic transition, said it is "monitoring events closely."
"I am deeply concerned about reports of violence and widespread property damage in Meikhtila Township, Mandalay Region," said a statement by U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell. "We extend our deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their lives and property in the violence."
Meikhtila is about 550 kilometers (340 miles) north of the main city of Yangon.