It was a terrifying sight- hundreds of angry, armed men on motorcycles advancing up a dusty street with no one to stop them.
Shouting at the top of their lungs, clutching machetes and iron pipes and long bamboo poles, they thrust their fists repeatedly into the air.
The object of their rage-Myanmar’s embattled minority Muslim community.
Residents gaping at the spectacle backed away as the Buddhist mob passed. Worried business owners turned away customers and retreated indoors. And three armed soldiers standing in green fatigues on a corner watched quietly, doing nothing despite an emergency government ordinance banning groups of more than five from gathering.
Within a few hours on Wednesday, at least one person was dead and four injured as this north-eastern town of Myanmar became the latest to fall prey to the country’s swelling tide of anti-Muslim unrest.
After a night of heavy rain, downtown Lashio was quiet Thursday morning. Soldiers blocked roads where Muslim shops were burnt. At one corner where the charred remains of a building still smoldered, Muslim residents sorted through rubble for anything salvageable. One woman who had fled a mob a day earlier was still in a state of shock.
“These things should not happen,” said the woman, Aye Tin, a Muslim resident. “Most Muslims are staying off the streets. They’re afraid they’ll be attacked or killed if they go outside.”
The violence that started on Tuesday in the north-eastern city of Lashio is casting fresh doubt over whether President Thein Sein’s government can or will act to contain the racial and religious intolerance plaguing a deeply fractured nation still struggling to emerge from half a century of military rule. Muslims have been the main victims of the violence since it began in western Rakhine state last year, but so far most criminal trials have involved prosecutions of Muslims, not members of the Buddhist majority.
The rioting in Lashio started Tuesday after reports that a Muslim man had splashed gasoline on a Buddhist woman and set her on fire. The man was arrested. The woman was hospitalised with burns on her chest, back and hands.
Mobs took revenge by burning down several Muslim shops and one of the city’s main mosques, along with an Islamic orphanage that was so badly charred that only two walls remained, said Min Thein, a resident contacted by telephone.
On Wednesday fires still smoldered at the ruined mosque, where a dozen charred motorcycles lay on the sidewalks underneath its white minarets. Army troops stood guard. The wind carried the acrid smell of several burned vehicles across town, and most Muslims hid in their homes.
When one group of thugs arrived at a Muslim-owned movie theatre housed in a sprawling villa, they hurled rocks over the gate, smashing windows. They then broke inside and ransacked the cinema.
Ma Wal, a 48-year-old Buddhist shopkeeper across the street, said she saw the crowd arrive. They had knives and stones, and came in two separate waves.
“I couldn’t look,” she said, recounting how she had shut the wooden doors of her shop. “We were terrified.”
A couple hours later, the mobs were gone and two army trucks and a small contingent of soldiers guarded the villa. “I don’t know what to think about it,” she said. “More casualties are ... not good for anybody.”
The government, which came to power in 2011 promising a new era of democratic rule, appealed for calm.
“Damaging religious buildings and creating religious riots is inappropriate for the democratic society we are trying to create,” presidential spokesman Ye Htut said on his Facebook page. “Any criminal act will be dealt with according to the law,” he said.
National police said nine people were arrested for involvement in the two days of violence, but didn’t say if they were Buddhists or Muslims.
After nightfall, authorities could be heard issuing instructions on loudspeakers across the city, reminding residents a dusk—to—dawn curfew was in effect. The voice bellowing into the night also said- “You are prohibited from carrying sticks or swords or any kind of weapon.”
A local freelance journalist, Khun Zaw Oo, said he was hit on the head with an iron pipe as he photographed mobs ransacking shops. He said he managed to flee but a companion also holding a camera was attacked and badly injured.
Myanmar’s sectarian violence first flared in western Rakhine state last year, when hundreds of people died in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that drove about 140,000 others, mostly Muslims, from their homes. Most are still living in refugee camps.
This month, authorities in two areas of Rakhine announced a regulation limiting Muslim families to two children. The policy drew sharp criticism from Muslim leaders, rights groups and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell on Tuesday said the U.S. opposes coercive birth limitation policies, and called on Myanmar “to eliminate all such policies without delay.”
The clashes had seemed confined to the Rakhine region, but in late March, similar Buddhist-led violence swept the town of Meikthila in central Myanmar, killing at least 43 people. Earlier this month, a court sentenced seven Muslims from Meikthila to prison terms for their role in the violence.
Several other towns in central Myanmar experienced less deadly violence, mostly involving the torching of Muslim businesses and mosques.
Muslims account for about 4 percent of Myanmar’s roughly 60 million people. Anti-Muslim sentiment is closely tied to nationalism and the dominant Buddhist religion, so leaders have been reluctant to speak up for the unpopular minority.
Thein Sein’s administration has been heavily criticised for not doing enough to protect Muslims. He vowed last week during a trip to the U.S. that all perpetrators of the sectarian violence would be brought to justice.