LASHIO, Myanmar (Reuters) - Hundreds of Muslim families sheltered in a heavily guarded Buddhist monastery on Thursday after two days of violence in the northern Myanmar city of Lashio left Muslim properties in ruins and raised alarm over a widening religious conflict.
About 1,200 Muslims were taken to Mansu Monastery after Buddhist mobs terrorized the city on Wednesday, a move that could signal the resolve of a government criticized for its slow response to previous religious violence.
The unrest in Lashio, a city about 700 km (430 miles) from Myanmar’s commercial capital of Yangon, shows how far anti-Muslim violence has spread in the Buddhist-dominated country as it emerges from decades of hardline military rule.
One man was killed and five people wounded in Wednesday’s clashes, presidential spokesman Ye Htut said in a statement.
A senior police officer, who declined to be identified, told Reuters the dead man was a Muslim and the five injured were Buddhists, including a journalist attacked by a Buddhist mob.
He said 300 soldiers and 200 police were enforcing security in Lashio, a city of 130,000 people near Myanmar’s northeastern border with China.
The authorities moved quickly to stem the violence in Lashio by deploying troops, banning unlawful assembly under a state of emergency, and setting up roadblocks to stop troublemakers entering the city.
Spokesman Ye Htut said 25 people were under investigation for the violence.
When religious unrest erupted in the central city of Meikhtila in March, it took three days of fighting before the authorities took decisive action. At least 44 people died there.
Khaing Aung, director general of the religious affairs ministry, said the government had learned from past experiences.
“Since we are taking action, people understand there should be no more violence,” he said.
“WE WERE VERY SCARED”
Thein Maing, who sheltered at the monastery with his wife and six children, said they only dared leave their house when they saw soldiers patrolling the streets on Wednesday. “I approached the soldiers and said, ‘We are afraid and we don’t know where to go. Please help us’, and they sent us here.”
Khin Kyi’s family hid in the house of an ethnic Chinese neighbor, while Buddhist men with sticks and swords prowled the area.
“We were very scared. This has never happened before,” she said, sitting amid bags of clothes in the crowded prayer hall, overlooked by statues of Buddha.
Badanta Ponnya Nanda, the head monk, said he hoped the city would be secure enough for Muslims to return to their homes within a week. “Today we need to calm everything down,” he said.
Shops reopened as police and soldiers patrolled the streets. There was no sign of the Buddhist youths who had marauded through town, burning Muslims out of their homes a day before.
Kyaw Kyaw Han, a soldier, stood guard outside a ransacked mosque littered with broken glass and religious books. Benches had been overturned and air conditioning units ripped out.
“We are here to guard against people starting fires,” he said.
Spokesman Ye Htut said three religious buildings were destroyed, including a large mosque in the city centre, along with 32 shops and a cinema. Ruins smoldered on Thursday and the area was cordoned off.
There did not appear to be any Muslims nearby.
The violence was sparked by reports on Tuesday that a Muslim man had badly burnt a Buddhist woman. State-run MRTV television said Ne Win, 48, had poured petrol over Aye Aye Win, 24, who sold fuel by the side of the road, and set her on fire.
After police detained Ne Win, Buddhists surrounded the police station and demanded he be handed over. Badanta Ponnya Nanda, head monk of Mansu Monastery, said he tried to reason with the crowd, telling them to respect the law.
“After that they went and burned the mosque,” he said.
Muslims make up about 5 percent of the estimated 60 million people in Myanmar.
The unleashing of ethnic and religious hatred since 49 years of military rule ended in March 2011 raises questions over whether reformist President Thein Sein has full control over the security forces as the country goes through its most dramatic changes since a coup in 1962.
The most serious unrest has come in Rakhine State in the west of the country, starting in June last year.
In October, there were organized attacks by Rakhine Buddhists on Rohingya Muslim communities that New York-based Human Rights Watch said amounted to ethnic cleansing. The government calls the stateless Rohingya illegal “Bengali” immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Robert Birsel