Authorities fired on a group of men attacking a Muslim community in central Burma, according to sources Thursday, as President Thein Sein authorized security forces to use deadly force to quell more than a week of violence.
The shooting occurred at around 11:00 p.m. in the troubled Bago region, north of the commercial capital Rangoon, where security forces have been scrambling to maintain order after new sectarian violence erupted on March 20.
At least five unidentified people were shot by the police and military when they were attacking Muslim-owned businesses and homes in Padigon, a small town west of Bago city, a resident of Padigon told RFA’s Burmese Service.
“We saw a few people injured—around five. We don’t know who these guys were,” the resident said on condition of anonymity.
“All political parties and regional organizations [in the area] are working together to prevent future attacks.”
The source from Padigon said that eight houses, four shops, and a mosque had been destroyed before authorities were able to control the violence.
He said that the wounded were being treated at the district hospital in Prome and that authorities had tightened security around nearby mosques.
It was the first time authorities have fired on attackers since violence erupted between Buddhists and Muslims in the city of Meikhtila on March 20. At least 40 people have been killed in the clashes in central Burma, and thousands left homeless.
Security forces had fired warning shots in the air in Bago region earlier on Wednesday to stop a mob of around 500 people from destroying “religious buildings,” shops, and houses in the region, state television reported, without providing further details.
The attack in Padigon was one of three incidents involving religious hatred to occur since Wednesday night in Bago region, which has affected Muslim neighborhoods in at least 11 townships in Mandalay and Bago divisions over the last week, prompting the government to declare an emergency and to impose curfews in some areas.
Early on Thursday, a dozen Muslim homes and two mosques were destroyed in Min Hla, resident Kyaw Myint told RFA.
“There are three mosques in the town—two were destroyed. The largest one is left because it is too big to be destroyed, but the mobs still tried,” Kyaw Myint said.
He said that security forces had been deployed to the area and that a curfew is now in place.
“The attackers came yesterday afternoon. It was quiet during the night, but then they came back this morning,” he said.
“They don’t seem to be from this area. There were a number of rural villagers who joined in. Ordinary people were not involved, as far as I can tell.”
A third incident occurred in the afternoon on Thursday in yet another town called Sit Kwin, a resident told RFA, but authorities were able to prevent any major destruction of Muslim buildings in the area.
“Right around 2:30 p.m. about 10 people came into town shouting slogans,” the resident said.
“They tried to destroy the mosque with hammers and wooden clubs but three policemen came by on motorbikes and they all ran away.”
The source said that residents had been anxious about the possibility of an attack and had closed area shops ahead of time.
The fresh violence occurred as Thein Sein took to the airwaves Thursday to try to alleviate sectarian tension and to warn perpetrators of religious attacks that they could expect a tough response from the government.
In an address aired nationally on state television at 6:00 p.m., the president authorized the use of force by authorities to prevent the spread of violence and told “religious extremists” that they would not escape prosecution for participating in acts of violence.
“I would like to warn all political opportunists and religious extremists who try to exploit the noble teachings of these religions and have tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths for their own self-interest: their efforts will not be tolerated,” Thein Sein said.
“In general, I do not endorse the use of force to solve problems. However, I will not hesitate to use force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of general public," he added.
“All perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
The clashes in Meikhtila last week seem to have been sparked by an argument in a gold shop over the price of a piece of jewelry, but quickly grew into riots in which mobs have targeted mosques, homes and shops in arson attacks across central Burma.
Thein Sein said Thursday that the riots had been furthered by organized “instigators [who] exploit the situation to engineer violence in other parts of the country,” without providing further details.
Violence between Burma’s Buddhist majority and the country’s Muslim minority, which accounts for some 4 percent of the nation’s 60 million people, is threatening to derail Thein Sein’s plans for national reconciliation and democratic reform following nearly five decades of military rule.
The riots in Meikhtila suggest that anti-Muslim sentiment is not limited to western Burma’s Rakhine state, where two separate outbreaks of violence between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines left at least 180 dead and tens of thousands homeless last year.
Thein Sein on Thursday cautioned the public to “expect these conflicts and difficulties to arise during our period of democratic transition,” adding that “we must find strength and take pride in diversity.”
He called on police, who have been criticized for failing to act quickly enough to stop the rioting, to “perform their duties decisively, bravely and within the constraints of the constitution and by-laws.”
Reported by Kyaw Thu, Moe Thu Aung and Kyaw Htun Naing for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.