Five dead and a mosque is burned to the ground in Myanmar after argument between Muslim shop owner and Buddhist customers sparks riot
At least five people died and a mosque was burned to the ground after a riot was sparked in Myanmar following a confrontation in a shop.
The town of Meikhtila has seen two days of violence, after the clashes were sparked when a Muslim shop owner is believed to have had a group of Buddhist customers beaten up.
The two communities have enjoyed a fractious relationship in the country for decades, with 39 people injured and a number of Muslim-owned shops and vehicles set on fire during the latest confrontation.
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Riots: Two residents sit on a railway track as a mosque burns in riot-hit Meikhtila, central Myanmar, where at least five people have died during rioting
Spark: A man stands in front of the burned down mosque. The riots are thought to have been started during an argument between a shop owner and customers
The five fatalities are believed to include a Buddhist monk, two local Buddhists and two Muslims, according to an employee of Meikhtila General Hospital, while state television said a woman was also killed.
Police established a curfew in the town for the second night as the violence continued.
The riots are the worst in the state since clashes in the western state of Rakhine between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya last year left approximately 200 people dead and more than 100,000 homeless.
‘People are going crazy, especially young people,’ said a Meikhtila resident under the condition of anonymity.
‘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.’
Curfew: The unrest between Buddhists and Muslims has led to a curfew being imposed for two days
International concern: US ambassador Derek Mitchell said he was ‘deeply concerned’ by the unrest
Win Htein, a Meikhtila member of parliament from the opposition National League for Democracy, said the death toll was likely to be 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.’
An announcement on state-controlled television said those responsible for inciting the violence would face legal action, as would the gold shop owner.
Under the military governments that ruled Myanmar from 1962 until 2011, ethnic and religious unrest was typically covered up tough censorship.
But since an elected government took power in 2011 the press has been unshackled, while people have been using the Internet and social media in increasing numbers to discuss ongoing situations.
Deaths: Win Htein, a Meikhtila member of parliament from the opposition National League for Democracy, said the death toll was likely to be higher than five
The civilian government of President Thein Sein is constrained from using open force to quell unrest because it needs foreign approval in order to gain aid and investment.
The United States, which had been the harshest critic of the previous 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,’ US ambassador Derek Mitchell said.
‘We extend our deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their lives and property in the violence.’
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.