YANGON, Myanmar – Anti-Muslim mobs rampaged through three more towns in Myanmar's predominantly Buddhist heartland over the weekend, destroying mosques and burning dozens of homes despite government efforts to stop the nation's latest outbreak of sectarian violence from spreading.
President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in central Myanmar on Friday and deployed army troops to the worst hit city, Meikhtila, where 32 people were killed and 10,000 mostly Muslim residents were displaced. But even as soldiers imposed order there after several days of anarchy that saw armed Buddhists torch the city's Muslim quarters, anti-Muslim unrest has spread south toward the capital, Naypyitaw.
A Muslim resident of Tatkone, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Meikhtila, said by telephone that a group of about 20 men ransacked a one-story brick mosque there late Sunday night, pelting it with stones and smashing windows before soldiers fired shots to drive them away. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, he said he believed the perpetrators were not from Tatkone.
A day earlier, another mob burned down a mosque and 50 homes in the nearby town of Yamethin, state television reported. Another mosque and several buildings were also destroyed the same day in Lewei, farther south. It was not immediately clear who was behind the violence, and no clashes or casualties were reported in the three towns.
The upsurge in sectarian unrest is casting a shadow over Thein Sein's administration as it struggles to bring democratic reform the Southeast Asian country after half a century of army rule officially ended two years ago this month.
Two similar episodes rocked western Rakhine state last year, pitting ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims in bloodshed that killed hundreds and drove 100,000 from their homes.
The Rohingya are widely denigrated as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and most are denied passports as a result. The Muslim population of central Myanmar, by contrast, is mostly of Indian origin and does not face the same questions over nationality.
The emergence of sectarian conflict beyond Rakhine state is an ominous development, one that indicates anti-Muslim sentiment has intensified nationwide since last year and, if left unchecked, could spread.
Sectarian and ethnic tensions are not new in Myanmar.
Muslims account for about four percent of the nation's roughly 60 million people, and during the long era of authoritarian rule, military governments twice drove out hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, while smaller clashes had occurred elsewhere. About one third of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities that practice Christianity or animism, and most have waged wars against the government for autonomy.
Analysts say racism has also played a role. Unlike the ethnic Burman majority, most Muslims in Myanmar are of South Asian descent, populations with darker skin that migrated to Myanmar centuries ago from what are now parts of India and Bangladesh.
The latest bloodshed "shows that inter-communal tensions in Myanmar are not just limited to the Rakhine and Rohingya in northern Rakhine state," said Jim Della-Giacoma of the International Crisis Group. "Myanmar is a country with dozens of localized fault lines and grievances that were papered over during the authoritarian years that we are just beginning to see and understand. It is a paradox of transitions that greater freedom does allow these local conflicts to resurface."
"If a democratic state is the nation's goal, they need to find a place for all its people as equal citizens," Della-Giacoma said. "Given the country's history, it won't be easy."
The government has put the total death toll in Meikhtila at 32, and authorities say they have detained at least 35 people allegedly involved in arson and violence in the region.
On Sunday, Vijay Nambiar, the U.N. secretary-general's special adviser on Myanmar, toured Meikhtila and called on the government to punish those responsible.
He also visited some of the nearly 10,000 people driven from their homes in the unrest. Most of the displaced are minority Muslims, who appeared to have suffered the brunt of the violence as armed Buddhist mobs roamed city.
Nambiar said he was encouraged to learn that some individuals in both communities had helped each other and that religious leaders were now advocating peace. He said the people he spoke to believe the violence "was the work of outsiders," but he gave no details.
"There is a certain degree of fear and anxiety among the people, but there is no hatred," Nambiar said after visiting both groups on Sunday and promising the United Nations would provide as much help as it can to get the city back on its feet. "They feel a sense of community and that it is a very good thing because they have worked together and lived together."
But he added: "It is important to catch the perpetrators. It is important that they be caught and punished."
In Meikthila, at least five mosques were set ablaze from Wednesday to Friday. The majority of homes and shops burned in the city also belonged to Muslims, and most of the displaced are Muslim. Dozens of corpses were piled in the streets, some of them charred beyond recognition.
"The city is calm and some shops have reopened, but many still live in fear. Some still dare not return to their homes," said Win Htein, an opposition lawmaker from the city.
Myanma Ahlin, a state-run newspaper, carried a statement from Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindu leaders expressing sorrow for the loss of life and property and calling on Buddhist monks to help ease tensions.
"We would like to call upon the government to provide sufficient security and to protect the displaced people and to investigate and take legal measures as urgently as possible," the statement from the Interfaith Friendship Organization said.
Muslims, who make up about 30 percent of Meikhtila's 100,000 inhabitants, have stayed off the streets since their shops and homes were burned and Buddhist mobs armed with machetes and swords began roaming the city.
Little appeared to be left of some palm tree-lined neighborhoods, where the legs of victims could be seen poking out from smoldering masses of twisted debris and ash. Broken glass, charred cars and motorcycles and overturned tables littered roads beside rows of burned-out homes and shops, evidence of the widespread chaos that swept the town.
Chaos began Wednesday after an argument broke out between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers. Once news spread that a Muslim man had killed a Buddhist monk, Buddhist mobs rampaged through a Muslim neighborhood and the situation quickly spiraled out of control.
Residents and activists said the police did little to stop the rioters or reacted too slowly, allowing the violence to escalate.
Associated Press writers Todd Pitman and Grant Peck contributed to this report from Bangkok.