MEIKTILA, Myanmar - At least 10 people have been killed in riots in central Myanmar, an MP said Thursday, prompting international concern at the country’s worst communal unrest since a wave of Buddhist-Muslim clashes last year.
Huge plumes of black smoke were seen rising above the town of Meiktila after buildings were set ablaze in a second day of fighting in the previously peaceful area, where a night-time curfew was imposed. Several mosques were reported to have been torched.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” by the unrest, which according to police erupted on Wednesday after an argument in a Muslim-owned gold shop intensified and caused about 200 people to fight in the streets. Win Htein, a member of the opposition National League for Democracy party, said he had seen bodies at the scene of fresh clashes Thursday. “More than 10 people were killed,” he told AFP from the town, which is his constituency seat.
The unrest comes amid heightened tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar. Communal conflict in a different region, the western state of Rakhine, left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced last year, overshadowing international optimism about the country’s widely praised political reforms since the end of military rule two years ago.
In a brief statement, the US embassy said it was closely monitoring the new violence and extended “deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their lives and property in the violence”.
UN resident coordinator Ashok Nigam called for all parties involved “to exercise the utmost tolerance and restraint within their communities”. A local resident, who asked not to be named, said he had seen “many dead bodies”. “The situation is getting worse. The police cannot control the people,” he said. An AFP photographer who visited the town saw three burned bodies and houses on fire.
“We’re scared. We keep the women and children at a safer building close to the police station,” another local resident said.
Police said several mosques were destroyed and a Buddhist monk was among two killed on Wednesday, but they did not give an updated toll for Thursday.
The local hospital said it had attended to five dead and 25 wounded. “Two died from burn injuries and the other three were killed because of wounds sustained from knives and sticks,” a hospital official said, asking not to be named.
Ko Ko Gyi, a member of the 88 Generation political activist group who travelled to Meiktila on Wednesday, said people from both communities were fleeing their homes for fear of being attacked.
Myanmar’s Muslims - largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent - account for an estimated four percent of the roughly 60 million population, although the country has not conducted a census in three decades.
Muslims entered Buddhist-majority Myanmar en masse as indentured labourers from the Indian subcontinent during British colonial rule which ended in 1948. But despite their long history, they have never fully been integrated into the country.
Sectarian unrest has occasionally broken out in the past in some areas across the country, with Rakhine state a flashpoint for the tensions.
Since violence broke out there last year, thousands of Muslim Rohingya boat people - including a growing number of women and children - have fled the conflict in rickety boats, many heading for Malaysia.
Win Htein said there were around 30,000 Muslims in Meiktila out of a total population of around 80,000 but no similar clashes had happened in his lifetime. “I think it is a consequence of what happened in Rakhine state last year,” he added.