RANGOON/MEIKHTILA — Burma’s government declared a state of emergency in Meikhtila on Friday afternoon as the central Burmese city was hit by a third day of clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.
In announcing the move, state-run television said that “Local security forces and authorities have to seek military help to restore order effectively,” suggesting that the government would send in troops to quell the ongoing riots.
Unofficial death toll estimates of the violence meanwhile continue to rise. A local hospital confirmed that 10 people had died, while an opposition lawmaker said at least 20 had been killed. The official government figure had not yet been updated by Friday evening and still stood at five.
Photo evidence of widespread carnage is also emerging, with news media websites and social media sites such as Facebook posting pictures that show numerous charred bodies and whole neighborhoods on fire.
Some local residents told The Irrawaddy that militant Buddhist monks and laymen went on a rampage through the city in Mandalay Division on Friday morning, destroying mosques and what they believed were Muslim-owned properties.
“It’s as if they are destroying the town. The situation is now out of control,” said a Pauk Chaung quarter resident, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of his safety.
He said Muslim residents were seeking shelter at sites in Meikhtila where police could offer them some form of protection.
“They [police] are standing guard over 800 Muslim people taking refuge at a football ground. Now I’ve heard that the ministers for internal affairs and religious affairs and the chief minister for Mandalay Division are here,” the Buddhist man said.
However, police had little control over events, according to the resident. “Now we have nearly 30 truckloads of riot police here, but they can’t control the mob,” he said. “Instead they are trying to put out the fires.”
Thousands of Muslims, who are believed to make up as much as a third of the city’s population, have reportedly fled since Wednesday out of fear that they might be killed.
On Friday evening, The Irrawaddy’s reporter in Meikhtila observed police evacuating about 1,500 residents, mostly women and children, out of the city’s Chan Aye quarter to a makeshift refugee camp on the town’s outskirts. More than 2,000 Muslim refugees were gathered at the
Rioters also threatened reporters on Friday morning, including The Irrawaddy’s photographer, forcing them to delete photos they had taken of the casualties and damage. The group was accompanied by a few police officers, but some reporters decided to leave the city fearing that the authorities could not guarantee their safety.
At 4 pm Friday, state-run television announced that President Thein Sein had imposed a state of emergency in Meikhtila, which is a garrison city with a heavy military presence, located halfway between Mandalay and Naypyidaw.
Earlier in the day, a senior officer at Meikhtila District Police Office told The Irrawaddy that riot police had begun seizing weapons from mobs and arresting anyone who was believed to be instigating unrest.
“So far, we have arrested 20 people, rioters as well as looters, after we charged into a mob,” he said, without explaining why police only began such actions on the third day of the violence.
Win Htein, a National League for Democracy lawmaker from Meikhtila, said at least 20 people had been killed in the violence, adding, “I’ve seen them with my own eyes.” He said the police force had been woefully inept in dealing with the escalating inter-communal violence.
“The security force doesn’t seem to have riot-control experience, so they don’t know how to react to the clashes,” he said. According to the opposition MP, the town had never experienced such visceral religious conflict before, adding that it was “disheartening” to see communities torn apart.
Mandalay State Chief Minister Ye Myint was also on the scene to inspect the situation and coordinate local authorities. Win Htein said he and local authorities were having a meeting with the chief minister and an unofficial death toll figure would be released afterward.
Staff at Meikhtila Public Hospital on Friday afternoon told The Irrawaddy that 10 people had died as a result of injuries sustained during the clashes.
Kay Oo May, the founder of Young Buddhists Association in Meikhtila, a local NGO, said she had been informed that 20 people were killed in recent days and that mosques throughout the town had been razed.
“I learned that 12 Muslims and eight Buddhists are dead. I myself witnessed two dead bodies,” she said. “Five mosques, including the biggest one, were destroyed,” Kay Oo May said, adding that the Muslim quarter of Chan Aye was the most hard-hit.
Members of the respected activist group 88 Generation Students have been calling for calm since violence broke out and on Friday afternoon the group said President Thein Sein’s response to the violence had been inadequate.
“They are very slow in handling the issue. We’d like to say that we, the 88 Generation leaders, are ready to cooperate with the authorities to settle the riot,” said Nyan Lin, a spokesperson for the group.
The All Burma Islamic Organization sent a letter to the Burmese president on Thursday urging him to urgently provide Muslim people in the country with lawful protection.
The clashes in Meikhtila are the latest flare-up in ongoing Buddhist and Muslim inter-communal violence in Burma. Since June 2012 there have been recurrent waves of violence between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya in western Burma’s Arakan State, which have killed 180 people and displaced 110,000 villagers, mostly Rohingyas.
In recent months there have been several reports of inter-communal clashes in other parts of Burma, but no one was reportedly killed in during these incidents.