MEIKHTILA, Burma (AP) — Two days of rioting between Buddhists and Muslims in a central Burma town has killed at least 20 and left residents too afraid to walk the streets, a lawmaker said Friday.
There was no immediate sign of fresh violence Friday morning but the town of Meikhtila remained tense and dangerous, said Win Htein, a local lawmaker from the opposition National League for Democracy.
Fires set to Muslim homes continued to burn but angry Buddhist residents and monks prevented authorities from putting out the blazes, he said.
At least five mosques were torched during the violence that started Wednesday, reportedly triggered by an argument between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers. A Buddhist monk was among the first killed, inflaming tensions that led a Buddhist mob to rampage through a Muslim neighborhood.
(READ MORE: Burma’s potential for a nationwide religious war)
Meikhtila is about 550 kilometers (340 miles) north of the main city of Yangon with a population of about 100,000 people, of which about a third are Muslims, Win Htein said. He said before this week’s violence, the community had 17 mosques.
It was difficult to determine the extent of destruction in the town because residents were too afraid to walk the streets and were sheltering in monasteries or other locations away from the violence.
“We don’t feel safe and we have now moved inside a monastery,” said Sein Shwe, a shop owner. “The situation is unpredictable and dangerous.”
(READ MORE: Burma declares state of emergency in Meikhtila)
Occasional isolated violence involving Burma’s majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities has occurred for decades.
The violence in Meikhtila was the latest sectarian unrest after clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya last year in western Rakhine state left more than 200 people dead and 100,000 homeless.
It is also the latest challenge for the government as it tries to keep peace in the country and navigate the transition from military rule to fledgling democracy.