MEIKTILA: Myanmar declared a state of emergency on Friday for a riot-hit town where 20 people have been killed in Buddhist-Muslim violence that has sparked fears of spreading unrest. Swathes of Meiktila, located 130km north of the capital Naypyidaw, have been reduced to ashes as the authorities struggle to establish control after three days of clashes and arson.
“At least 20 people have been killed. We estimate that it could be higher but it is also difficult for us to gather all the figures,” a police officer who did not want to be named said.
The president’s office said the state of emergency would enable the military to help restore order.
A local lawmaker said that about 25 people had been killed in Meiktila, where more than one-third of the population of about 80,000 people is Muslim, but it was not possible to verify his figures.
“The situation is not good although the government has said everything is under control,” parliamentarian Win Htein, of the opposition National League for Democracy party, said.
He said hundreds of Muslims had taken shelter at a football ground and police compound while Buddhists had sought sanctuary in monasteries.
As international alarm grew, a senior UN official said authorities needed to act “to prevent further loss of life or spread of violence” in the Buddhist-majority nation.
“Religious leaders and other community leaders must also publicly call on their followers to abjure violence, respect the law and promote peace,” Vijay Nambiar, special advisor to UN leader Ban Ki-Moon, said in a statement.
The situation was extremely tense on Friday with groups of men — including Buddhist monks — armed with knives and sticks prowling the streets.
A journalist saw the incinerated remains of two victims on a roadside, just one of several reports of bodies in the town, as flames raged from torched mosques and houses while other buildings smouldered unattended.
“The situation is getting worse,” a local resident said. “People are destroying buildings. Many people have been killed. We are scared and trying to stay safe at home.”
A group of reporters were stopped at knife-point by a gang of young men and monks and forced to hand over their camera memory cards, according to one of the journalists.
A local police officer said an order had been given on Thursday to shoot rioters below the waist if needed to quell the violence, which apparently began with a row in a Muslim-owned gold shop that turned into a mass street brawl.
“There is a real risk of further violence unless the authorities take immediate steps to protect those at risk,” said Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia Pacific director.
Meanwhile in Bangkok, Thai officials said 30 people were killed and many wounded on Friday when a fire broke out in a camp in northern Thailand housing refugees from Myanmar.
“The fire destroyed 100 makeshift houses. There are 30 people dead and many injured,” said an interior ministry official. It is believed to have been caused by people cooking.
“Most of the dead are women, elderly and children. Some 200 are wounded and hospitalised,” a senior national intelligence official said.
The blaze broke out at about 4:00pm at the Mae Surin camp in Mae Hong Son province and was extinguished about two hours later, she said.
The Thai government pledged an investigation into the blaze at the camp, which houses roughly 3,700 refugees.