At least 20 people were killed in Mandalay Region’s Meiktila township last week following the outbreak of communal unrest between Muslims and Buddhists that was sparked by a dispute over a golden hairclip. By March 23 troops were patrolling the town’s streets and martial law was in place.
A police officer told AFP news agency on March 22 that at least 20 people had been killed.
Meiktila township authorities say the unrest started on March 19 when a couple from nearby Pyun Kauk village visited a gold shop at about 10am to test the quality of the golden hairclip.
Tests apparently revealed the item to be fake, which resulted in a fight between the husband and gold shop employees that left the husband with a head injury.
However, the conflict quickly escalated, a police officer said.
“When the quarrel happened in the shop, people nearby quickly joined in and the gold shop as well as four other shops were destroyed,” the police officer said.
“We don’t exactly know how much damage has been caused but we set up security teams at the market,” he said on March 19.
News of the conflict spread quickly through social networking sites such as Facebook, with stories circulating that the hairclip sellers were not a married couple but a grandmother and child. According to those reports the grandmother was killed and the grandchild hospitalised after being beaten by the shop’s owners.
However, the police officer said the stories were false – and confirmed that the couple had laid charges against the shop’s owners.
The National League for Democracy’s representative for Meiktila, U Win Htein, told AFP on March 21 that at least 10 people had been killed in the riots, prompting international concern at the country’s worst communal unrest since a wave of Buddhist-Muslim clashes last year.
Huge plumes of black smoke were seen rising above Meiktila on March 21 after buildings were set ablaze in a second day of fighting in the previously peaceful area, where a night-time curfew was imposed.
Several mosques were reported to have been torched.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” by the unrest, which according to police erupted on March 20 after an argument in a Muslim-owned gold shop intensified and caused about 200 people to fight in the streets.
U Win Htein, a member of the opposition National League for Democracy party, said he had seen bodies at the scene of fresh clashes on March 21.
“More than 10 people were killed,” he told AFP from the town, which is his constituency seat.
The unrest comes at a time of heightened tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar.
Communal conflict in Rakhine State left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced last year, overshadowing international optimism about the country’s widely praised political reforms since the end of military rule two years ago.
A senior US State Department official told AFP that Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell had raised concerns about the situation with top Myanmar government officials.
“The embassy is also in touch with community leaders. We will continue to encourage public efforts to call for calm and foster dialogue, tolerance and mutual respect,” the official said, asking not to be named.
UN resident coordinator Ashok Nigam called for all parties involved “to exercise the utmost tolerance and restraint within their communities”.
A local resident, who asked not to be named, said he had seen “many dead bodies”, adding: “The situation is getting worse. The police cannot control the people.”
An AFP photographer saw three burned bodies and houses on fire.
“We’re scared. We keep the women and children at a safer building close to the police station,” another local resident said.
Police said several mosques were destroyed and a Buddhist monk was among two killed on March 20, but they did not give an updated toll for March 21.
The local hospital said it had attended to five dead and 25 wounded.
“Two died from burn injuries and the other three were killed because of wounds sustained from knives and sticks,” a hospital official said, asking not to be named.
Ko Ko Gyi, a member of the 88 Generation political activist group, who travelled to Meiktila on March 20, said people from both communities were fleeing their homes for fear of being attacked.
Myanmar’s Muslims – largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent – account for an estimated 4 percent of the 60 million population, although the country has not conducted a census in three decades.
Muslims entered Buddhist-majority 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 been fully integrated.
Sectarian unrest 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.
U Win Htein said there were around 30,000 Muslims in Meiktila out of a total population of around 80,000 but that no similar clashes had happened in his lifetime.
“I think it is a consequence of what happened in Rakhine state last year,” he added.
The UN Human Rights Council on March 21 passed a resolution calling on the Myanmar government to launch an independent investigation into reports of human rights violations, also lamenting “persisting inter-communal tensions”.