Updated at 5:30 p.m. EST on 2013-03-22
Burmese President Thein Sein on Friday declared a state of emergency in riot-torn Meikhtila city after police failed to contain three days of violence between Buddhists and Muslims that has left more than 20 dead and dozens injured.
Angry mobs armed with knives and sticks roamed the streets, while houses and mosques burned and charred bodies lay in the streets as Thein Sein issued an order asking the military to rein in the violence, the worst since Buddhist-Muslim clashes in western Rakhine state last year.
Local residents said the violence showed signs of calming down as military personnel from three battalions from an army division based in Intakaw in Rangoon were deployed to the city late Friday local time.
Thein Sein’s emergency order covered Meikhtila, Wan Twin, Tharse, and Mahlaing townships which bore the brunt of the violence.
“Local security forces and authorities have to seek military help to restore order effectively,” his order broadcast on state television said.
Troops in the area will be directly controlled by the President’s Office and the commander-in-chief’s office, a military officer stationed in Meikhtila told RFA’s Burmese Service.
A lawmaker and a resident told RFA that up to 26 people may have died in the riots.
Police told reporters at least 20 were confirmed dead but that the actual number could be higher.
“What I saw with my eyes was 26 dead bodies,” local resident San Hlaing said.
Win Htein, a parliamentarian for Meikhtila township from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), said he had learned that “three were killed on the first day, about ten on the second day and eight today.”
Some 300 homes were burned down over the three days of rioting, an officer at the Meikhtila fire department told RFA's Burmese Service.
Many of the city’s Muslim residents have fled their homes amid the violence, which sources said was triggered by a quarrel on Wednesday morning between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owner of a goldsmith's shop in the city's main bazaar.
The authorities have converted a stadium and a monastery as temporary relief centers for victims and are helping those trapped in their homes and sending them to stay in the “safe” areas, San Hlaing said.
“About 1,000 Buddhist victims are staying at a monastery. About 3,600 Muslim victims were sent to a stadium,” he said.San Hlaing said he saw “four blocks” of buildings burning in western Meikhtila and some 1,000 victims of both communities from there are now staying under trees and in the open fields.
One mostly Muslim block, Thiri Mingalar, was “totally destroyed.”
MP Win Htein said the authorities have begun arresting people behind the violence, such as those carrying weapons and breaking into and looting houses left behind by fleeing victims.
“The situation after this evening should be better,” he said on Friday.
San Hlaing said the situation appeared to be calming down.
“Today, I don’t see people carrying weapons like I did yesterday,” he said.
The clashes are some of the worst since violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rakhines in Rakhine state left at least 180 dead and tens of thousands homeless.
More than a third of the 100,000 people in Meikhtila, a garrison city located halfway between Mandalay and the capital Naypyidaw, is Muslim.
The U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s special adviser issued a statement expressing "deep sorrow at the tragic loss of lives and destruction."
“Religious leaders and other community leaders must also publicly call on their followers to abjure violence, respect the law and promote peace,” Special Adviser Vijay Nambiar said in a statement.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington was deeply concerned over the situation in Meikhtila and that the U.S. envoy there had raised its concerns with senior government officials.
"We welcome and encourage the efforts of government authorities, community leaders, civil society and political party leaders to restore calm, to foster dialogue and increase tolerance in a manner that respects human rights and due process of law," Nuland told a media briefing.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.