Myanmar's President Thein Sein felt the direct impact of communal violence grappling his country when his first visit to troubled western Rakhine state on Tuesday was marred by deadly anti-Muslim riots.
A 94-year-old Muslim woman was stabbed to death and more than 70 houses, a mosque, and school were burned down as hundreds of Buddhist rioters armed with knives and sticks went on a rampage in Pauktaw and Thabyuchine villages of Thandwe township in Rakhine state, according to local officials and residents.
Police fired numerous rounds of warning shots to contain the violence, the first in three months in the coastal state which has been the flashpoint of Buddhist-Muslim unrest in the country since June last year that has left more than 200 dead and 140,000 homeless.
Thein Sein, who spent Tuesday visiting a different area in Rakhine, is due to visit Thandwe on Wednesday to get first-hand information on the violence, officials said as the leader made his first visit to the state since taking the helm in March 2011.
Rights groups have expressed concern that sectarian strife could dampen Thein Sein's reform program, which has earned praise across the globe and resulted in the lifting of long-running international sanctions imposed during the previous military junta rule.
The latest violence stemmed from an argument on Sunday between an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist and a local Kaman Muslim—an officially recognized minority in Myanmar—over a parking space for a motorcycle in Thandwe, triggering arson attacks against property owned by Muslims, officials said.
"Houses were torched and policemen fired warning shots in the air in Thabyuchine village," Win Naing, the chairman of the Thandwe branch of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, told RFA's Myanmar Service.
"I heard that several people looted houses and set them on fire," he said.
Police said several people were arrested, but eyewitnesses said some of the attackers had returned to wage violence after being released.
"Some people came into the village and they set fire to houses and then they went back," a man who witnessed houses being set on fire in Thabyuchine village told RFA.
"Police arrested several of them and they were release later. They came into the village again at around 10:30 pm and set houses on fire again."
A woman from the same village said she saw about 1,000 people taking part in the arson attacks. She said she was informed of "several" deaths.
"A mosque, school, and houses—all of them Muslim-owned—were burned down and some people died," she said. "The people who set fire to the houses were holding weapons such as knives and sticks. I had to hide and other villagers also hid."
Muslims in Thandwe said they were concerned over a possible escalation of violence.
"Like in Korean movies, they have swords and sticks," Muslim resident Tin Win was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying. "There's no law and order in this town. We're in a serious situation. We're really worried."
Khin Maung Than, an administration official in Pauktaw village, which is about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Thandwe, said security forces "didn’t do anything" to check the unrest.
"When can we, the civilians, live safely?" asked Tin Win Hlaing, an official of the Kaman National Party. "We, the people, are expecting a government that can protect us and that can love people as their own children. The current unrest has destroyed the country’s image."
The Rakhine state government did not give the number of houses that were burned down, but residents said more than 70 units were affected.
During his trip to Myauk-U and Kyauktaw townships and the Rakhine capital Sittwe on Tuesday, Thein Sein met with Buddhist and Muslim leaders and government officials and appealed to the people to live in harmony and not to incite hatred and violence.
He said security forces alone could not bring the situation under control.
"The president urged us to live together peacefully like we had been for a long time before," .Aung Kyaw Nyunt, a community leader from northern Maungdaw township, told RFA after attending talks with the Myanmar leader.
The military has increased its presence in the Thandwe area ahead of Thein Sein's visit, an official from his office told Agence France-Presse.
"The main focus of the trip is the communal violence," said the presidential official, who asked not to be named.
Four major Myanmar Muslim organizations released an open letter to Thein Sein late Tuesday calling on the government to take urgent law enforcement action.
"The concerns of minority Muslims around the country have reached peak levels. They feel they have no security," the letter said.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Sai Tun Aung Lwin for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.