MEIKTILA, Myanmar: The death toll from religious violence in central Myanmar rose to 32 Saturday as rescuers found bodies in the ashes of homes torched during an eruption of communal unrest, officials said.
Almost 9,000 people have been displaced by Buddhist-Muslim unrest that tore through the town of Meiktila, according to the information ministry.
A government official told AFP on condition of anonymity that security forces found a further 21 bodies in the wreckage of buildings torched in arson attacks during the clashes, which began on Wednesday. An official toll earlier put the number of dead at 11.
A state of emergency has seen troops deployed in an effort to bring calm to the streets of the central Myanmar town, some 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of the capital Naypyidaw.
Around 50 military trucks were deployed in the area on Saturday, after homes and mosques were torched by mobs armed with knives and sticks in the three days of communal rioting.
The clashes are the latest sign of worsening tensions between Muslims and Buddhists, presenting a serious challenge for the quasi-civilian regime as it looks to reform the country after decades of iron-fisted military rule.
“We do not know what we will do in the future. Most of us want to go back home if there is peace under the military,” said one displaced man at the town’s sports ground, which has become a makeshift refuge for hundreds of local Muslims.
“There was no proper control in recent days. We welcome the soldiers coming into the town, they can give us security.”
The violence began after an apparent argument in a gold shop spiralled into pitched brawls.
Mosques were reduced to ashes, while gangs of young men, including monks, roamed the streets.
It is the worst communal violence since a wave of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the western state of Rakhine last year that left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced.
The state of emergency order, signed by President Thein Sein, is designed to enable the army to help restore order and is a significant move in a country trying to emerge from the legacy of junta rule, which ended two years ago.
The United Nations, US, Britain and rights groups have called for calm and dialogue between communities amid fears that the violence could spread.
The office of the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement Saturday: “The EU urges the authorities to protect the civilian population from violence, and to investigate the causes of this disturbing state of affairs.
“The High-Representative encourages all parties and particularly community and religious leaders to call for an end of violence.”
Journalists in the town have seen the charred remains of bodies on the roadside, while one group of reporters was threatened at knife-point by a group of men and monks who forced them to hand over their camera memory sticks.
Myanmar’s Muslims — largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent — account for an estimated four percent of the population of roughly 60 million, although the country has not conducted a census in three decades.
Religious violence has occasionally broken out in the past in some areas across the country, with Rakhine state a flashpoint for the tensions.
Since violence broke out there last year, thousands of Muslim Rohingya — including a growing number of women and children — have fled the conflict in rickety boats, many heading for Malaysia.