Myanmar’s army took control of a ruined central city on Saturday, imposing a tense calm after several days of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims left piles of corpses in the streets and buildings ablaze in the worst sectarian bloodshed to hit the Southeast Asian nation this year.
Truckloads of soldiers could be seen patrolling Meikhtila and taking up positions at intersections and banks as authorities delivered food and water to thousands of displaced Muslims. Some residents, who had cowered indoors for days since the mayhem began Wednesday, emerged from their homes to take in the destruction.
President Thein Sein imposed a state of emergency in the region on Friday to stop violence from spreading. The unrest was the first of its kind here since two similar bouts of bloodshed shook western Rakhine state last year.
It was not immediately clear which side bore the brunt of the latest unrest, but terrified Muslims, who make about 30 per cent of Meikhtila’s 100,000 inhabitants, stayed off the streets on Friday as their shops and homes burned and angry Buddhist residents and monks tried to stop firefighters from dousing the blazes. Riot police crisscrossed town seizing machetes and hammers from anxious Buddhist mobs.
At least five mosques were torched and thousands of terrified Muslims have fled their homes, escorted away by police to two make-shift camps. Some Buddhists, meanwhile, have sought shelter at local monasteries.
“Calm has been restored after troops have taken charge of security, said Win Htein, an opposition lawmaker from Meikhtila. “So far, nearly 6,000 Muslim people have been relocated at a stadium and a police station for their safety.”
Residents said rescue workers and volunteers were arriving from other towns to help, and local Buddhists were giving food and water to displaced Muslims.
Little appeared to be left of some palm tree-lined neighbourhoods, though, where whole plots were reduced to smouldering masses of twisted debris and ash. Broken glass, destroyed motorcycles and overturned tables littered roads beside rows of burnt-out homes and shops, evidence of the widespread chaos that swept the town.
Residents described finding gruesome scenes. Local businessman San Hlaing said he counted 28 bodies this week, all men, piled in groups around the town, including on a highway.
The devastation in Meikhtila was reminiscent of last year’s clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya, which left hundreds of people dead and more than 100,000 displaced almost all of them Muslim. The Rohingya are widely perceived as illegal migrants and foreigners from Bangladesh; the Muslim population of Meikhtila is believed to be mostly of Indian origin.
This week’s chaos began Wednesday after an argument broke out between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers. After news spread that a Muslim man had killed a Buddhist monk, Buddhist mobs began rampaging through a Muslim neighbourhood and the situation spun out of control.