BANGKOK — As a picture of chaos and anarchy emerged from a city in central Myanmar on Friday, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the area and ordered the military to assist in quelling rioting that residents say has left at least 20 people dead.
Deployment of troops in the city — residents reported seeing soldiers entering on Friday — carries heavy political implications in Myanmar after five decades of military rule until Mr. Thein Sein inaugurated his civilian government in 2011.
The religious violence in the city of Meiktila has underlined what local residents say is a vacuum of authority in a country that only two years ago was a police state.
Rioting and arson attacks spread on Friday to villages outside Meiktila, as mobs of Buddhists, some led by monks, continued a three-day rampage through Muslim areas. Witnesses reached by phone said security forces did little to stop the violence.
“Mobs were destroying buildings and killing people in cold blood,” said U Nyan Lynn, a former political prisoner who witnessed what he described as massacres. “Nobody stopped them — I saw hundreds of riot police there.”
Violence appeared to be spreading outside of Meiktila. Credit The New York Times
News services, which had reporters in the city, said that Buddhist homes had also been set on fire and that while thousands of Muslims had fled to a stadium for safety, at least some Buddhists were also taking shelter outside their homes, in shrines.
Images from Meiktila showed entire neighborhoods burned to the ground, some with only blackened trees left standing. Lifeless legs poked from beneath rubble. And charred corpses spoke to the use of fire as a main tool of the rioting mobs.
“I can’t handle what I saw there,” said Daw Nilar Thein, a human rights activist. She described the violence as anarchic and unspeakable.
One video posted to Facebook by Radio Free Asia on Friday showed Muslim women and men cowering and shielding their heads from flying objects as they fled their attackers. Onlookers are overheard shouting, “Oooh! Look how many of them. Kill them! Kill them!”
The three days of violence have been too chaotic to establish a precise death toll — and officials reached by telephone refused to answer questions about casualties. But estimates among witnesses rose as high as 50, with one news photographer counting 15 corpses in the streets on Friday morning alone.
Some witnesses also wondered whether the violence had been organized. State news agencies in Myanmar said the fighting began on Wednesday after a dispute in a Muslim-owned gold shop. The Associated Press said the customers were Buddhist. But the severity of the violence suggests that deeply held hatred in the city, buried during five decades of military rule, is surfacing with the country’s newfound democratic freedoms.
Riot police in Meiktila, in central Myanmar, on Friday. Credit Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
Just as in western Myanmar, where more than 150 people have been killed in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims over the past year, those behind the violence in Meiktila tried to stop images of the destruction from getting out. On Friday, a group of Buddhist monks threatened news photographers, including one who works for The Associated Press, with a sword and homemade weapons. With a monk holding a blade to his neck, U Khin Maung Win, the A.P. photographer, handed over his camera’s memory card.
“We are trying to leave the town,” Mr. Khin Maung Win said by telephone. “They are now after journalists, too.”
The notion of Buddhists, especially monks, rampaging through Muslim neighborhoods with weapons is jarring to the outside world. But it follows the same pattern of violence seen in western Myanmar over the past year, where radical monks have helped to stir up hatred against Muslim ethnic group members who call themselves Rohingya.
Compared to the Rohingya strife, the violence in Meiktila is considered by many Burmese to be more threatening to the democratization process because it is in the country’s heartland.
After two years of civilian rule, Myanmar harbors both the optimism of opening its economy to the world and the pitfalls of ethnic and religious strife.
A visit to Myanmar on Friday by Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, underlined the country’s chances for greater prosperity after the disastrous socialist rule of previous military governments.
A man in Meiktila, Myanmar, where Buddhists led a rampage through the Muslim quarter to avenge the death of a monk. The authorities imposed a curfew. Credit Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
Mr. Schmidt told an audience in Yangon, the commercial capital, that the country was cementing its new freedoms by connecting itself to the world. “The Internet will make it impossible to go back,” he said, news agencies reported.
But the freeing of the Internet, which was heavily censored during military rule, has also helped spread hatred and intolerance in the country, especially against Muslims. Although predominantly Buddhist, Myanmar is a patchwork of ethnicities and languages, especially in cities, where it is not uncommon for a Buddhist pagoda, mosque, church and Hindu temple to be within blocks of one another.
While some signs Friday night pointed to a calming of the situation, many Muslims and Buddhists in the affected area remained wary and separated.
Muslims have been put in Meiktila’s sports stadium, where, according to one report, food and water are scarce. Photographs show frightened-looking people rushing to the stadium, clutching belongings and carrying their children and the elderly.
There have been a number of voices of restraint in Myanmar as the violence escalated. U Min Ko Naing, a prominent former political prisoner, pleaded with a crowd in Meiktila in the video posted on Friday.
“We need the full security of our lives and property,” he said. “Our children and women must not live in fear.”
A leading monk in the country, Ashin Nyanissara, also called for restraint, saying in an interview with the Democratic Voice of Burma on Thursday that “all religions should live peacefully with loving kindness and tolerance.”
Source: New York Times