YANGON: At least 10 people have been killed in riots in central Myanmar, a local MP said Thursday, provoking US concern at the worst communal violence since Buddhist-Muslim clashes in western Rakhine state last year.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” by the latest unrest, which according to police erupted on Wednesday after an argument in a Muslim-owned gold shop intensified and caused about 200 people to clash on the streets.
Win Htein, a member of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said he had seen bodies at the scene of fresh fighting in the town of Meiktila on Thursday.
“More than 10 people were killed,” he told AFP by telephone from the town, which is his constituency seat.
Police have so far confirmed that two people died — including a Buddhist monk — after sustaining severe burns in Wednesday’s fighting, while several mosques were also torched by angry mobs.
A curfew was put in place overnight but witnesses said the violence erupted again on Thursday morning, with authorities struggling to stem it.
A local resident, who asked not to be named, said he had seen “many dead bodies”.
“The situation is getting worse. The police cannot control the people. There are groups of people on the streets with knives and sticks,” he told AFP.
The unrest comes amid heightened tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar. Communal conflict in Rakhine has left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced since June 2012.
In a brief statement, the US embassy said it was closely monitoring events.
“I am deeply concerned about reports of violence and widespread property damage,” ambassador Derek Mitchell said. “We extend our deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their lives and property in the violence.”
Win Htein said that there were around 30,000 Muslims in Meiktila out of a total population of around 80,000 but no similar clashes had happened in his lifetime.
“I think it is a consequence of what happened in Rakhine state last year,” he added.
A local police officer confirmed that “some people were injured” in fresh fighting in the town but did not give further details.
Myanmar’s Muslims — largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent — account for an estimated four percent of the roughly 60 million population, although the country has not conducted a census in three decades.
Muslims entered Myanmar en masse as indentured labourers from the Indian subcontinent during British colonial rule which ended in 1948.
But despite their long history, they have never fully been integrated into the country.
Pockets of sectarian unrest have occasionally broken out in the past across the country, with Rakhine state a flashpoint for tensions.
Since violence erupted there last year, thousands of Muslim Rohingya boat people — including a growing number of women and children — have fled the Rakhine conflict in rickety boats, many heading for Malaysia.
An initial report on the Myanmar Police Force’s Facebook page late on Wednesday said anger spread in Meiktila after one man was injured during the row in the gold shop.
The report said a mob then descended on the area and destroyed some buildings.
It said six people were hospitalised and the Buddhist monk and a Muslim man later died from their injuries. A subsequent police report omitted the religion of the second man.