YANGON, Myanmar – Buddhist monks armed with swords and machetes stalked the streets of a city in central Myanmar today where sectarian violence has left about 20 people dead and begun to spread to other areas, according to local officials.
Members of the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Meiktila township have clashed this week after a dispute between a Muslim gold shop owner and two Buddhist sellers Wednesday ignited simmering communal tensions.
Rioters have set fire to houses, schools and mosques, prompting thousands of residents to flee their homes amid unrest that had echoes of sectarian troubles that killed scores of people in western Myanmar last year.
The United Nations and the United States have expressed concern about the violence in the lakeside city about 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Mandalay.
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Win Htein, an opposition member of parliament for Meiktila, said the number of dead in the city has risen to about 20 by his estimate – most of them Muslims – after charred bodies were found in the streets.
“I have not seen this scale of violence before in my life,” he said. “I am very sad. The community used to live in peace.”
Myanmar is emerging from decades of military repression and has taken a number of significant steps toward democracy in recent years under President Thein Sein. But it has been plagued by bouts of ethnic violence that some analysts say are a byproduct of the changing political climate.
A group of about 100 Buddhists, including some monks, went around Meiktila on Thursday night torching mosques, said Police Lt. Col. Aung Min, and while most of them have returned home, some are still wandering the streets, carrying weapons.
Although Aung Min declined to provide an official death toll, he said the violence had spread to a nearby town, Win Twin, where a mosque was burned down overnight.
He said about 1,000 Muslims had taken temporary shelter in a soccer stadium in Meiktila, where about 30 per cent of the 100,000 residents are estimated to be Muslims.
Win Htein said he believed that more than 5,000 Buddhists had fled to monasteries around the city to escape the violence. (CNN)