5 dead in central Myanmar religious rioting

At least five people died and a mosque was burned in two days of rioting in a central Myanmar town, in the latest challenge for the government in keeping the peace while making the transition from strong-arm military rule to pluralist democracy.

State-controlled media Thursday night broke their silence on the violence in Meikhtila with government television announcing that five people had been killed and 39 injured in rioting that was triggered by an argument between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers.

Occasional isolated violence involving Myanmar's majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities has occurred for decades. But the risk of spreading violence was underlined last year by clashes in the western state of Rakhine between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that left about 200 people dead and more than 100,000 homeless.

There was fear the number of dead in Meikhtila would rise because the violence - the country's worst since the clashes in Rakhine state - was continuing.

According to an employee of Meikhtila General Hospital, Amar Yee, the dead were one Buddhist monk, two local Buddhist residents and two Muslim ones. State television said one of the five was a woman.

As nightfall approached Thursday, the situation remained tense, although a curfew was apparently put in force for a second night. But there was confusion even among police about when it was supposed to take effect.

"At the moment, people are gathering here and there in groups downtown," said Tin Mg Thin, a police warrant officer in Meikhtila. "Some parts of the town still have structures burning. ... The police are patrolling and guarding some points. We are awaiting orders from above." He said a safety camp had been opened at one police post for people to take shelter.

Several Muslim-owned shops and at least one mosque were burned Wednesday. Showing sensitivity to the threat of further enflaming feelings, state television said one "religious building" was destroyed along with a township education office, some shops and some vehicles.

"People are going crazy, especially young people," said a Meikhtila resident who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety. "It's hard to stop them. Some Muslims run to the safety camps and some run into the fields near town."

She said some houses belonging to Muslim residents had been destroyed, including one of her neighbors'.

"We don't dare to leave our home as burning and riots are going on outside," she said. "The biggest mosque in town burned to the ground today. It had been burning since yesterday, but no one dared to put out the fire and the rioters wouldn't let others put it out."

Win Htein, a Meikhtila member of parliament from the opposition National League for Democracy, said it seemed likely that the actual death toll was higher than five.

"I saw three dead bodies myself. And my people also found some bodies," he said by phone. "Even though the curfew has been imposed since yesterday, the police seem a bit hesitant to control the rioters as they don't have much experience on handling riots."

The TV announcement said those responsible for inciting the violence would face legal action, as would the gold shop owner, who allegedly had the customers beaten up.

Under the military governments that ruled Myanmar from 1962 until 2011, ethnic and religious unrest was typically hushed up, an approach made easier in pre-Internet days, when there was a state monopoly on daily newspapers, radio and television, backed by tough censorship of other media.

But since an elected government took power in 2011, people have been using the Internet and social media in increasing numbers, and the press has been unshackled, with censorship mostly dropped and privately owned daily newspapers expected to hit the streets in the next few months.

The civilian government of President Thein Sein is constrained from using open force to quell unrest because it needs foreign approval in order to woo aid and investment. The previous military regime had no such compunctions about using force, and was ostracized by the West for its human rights abuses.

The United States, which had been the harshest critic of the military regime but now is encouraging the democratic transition, said it is "monitoring events closely."

"I am deeply concerned about reports of violence and widespread property damage in Meikhtila Township, Mandalay Region," said a statement by U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell. "We extend our deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their lives and property in the violence."

There was no apparent direct connection between the Meikhtila violence and that last year in Rakhine state. Rakhine Buddhists allege that Rohingya are mostly illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The Muslim population of Meikhtila is believed to be mostly of Indian origin, and although religious tensions are longstanding, the incident sparking the violence seemed to be a small and isolated dispute.

Meikhtila is about 550 kilometers (340 miles) north of the main city of Yangon.