Unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar has reduced neighbourhoods to ashes and stoked fears that last year's sectarian bloodshed is spreading into the country's heartland in a test of Asia's newest democracy.
Buildings in Meikhtila were still burning early on Friday and agitated Buddhist crowds roamed the otherwise near-deserted streets after three days of turbulence, said Reuters reporters in the city 540 km (336 miles) north of the commercial capital Yangon.
Five people, including a Buddhist monk, have been killed and dozens wounded since Wednesday, state media reported. Other authorities put the death toll at 10 or higher.
The unleashing of ethnic hatred, suppressed during 49 years of military rule that ended in March 2011, is challenging the reformist government of one of Asia's most ethnically diverse countries.
Jailed dissidents have been released, a free election held and censorship lifted in Myanmar's historic democratic transition. But the government has faced mounting criticism over its failure to stop the bloodshed between Buddhists and Muslims.
"I am really sad over what happened here because this is not just happening to one person. It's affecting all of us," said Maung Maung, a Buddhist ward leader in Meikhtila.
Hundreds of Muslims have fled their homes to shelter at a sports stadium, said local officials. The unrest is a bloody reprise of last year's violence in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, which officially killed 110 people and left 120,000 people homeless, most of them stateless Rohingya Muslims.
BURNING MOSQUE, ARMED RESIDENTS
Locals complained there were too few police in this city of about 180,000 people to subdue the unrest. It erupted after an argument between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owners of a gold shop spiralled into a riot involving hundreds of people, said police.
Reuters saw some Meikhtila residents arming themselves with knives and sticks in an eerie echo of the Rakhine violence in 2012, when pitched battles between the two communities later morphed into orchestrated attacks on Muslim communities by organised gangs of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
The United Nations warned the sectarian unrest could endanger a fragile reform programme launched after Myanmar's quasi-civilian government replaced a decades-old military dictatorship in 2011.
"Religious leaders and other community leaders must also publicly call on their followers to abjure violence, respect the law and promote peace," Vijay Nambiar, U.N. special adviser of the secretary-general, said in a statement.
Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country, but about 5 percent of its 60 million people are Muslims. There are large and long-established communities in Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar's two largest cities, where tensions are simmering.
"Everyone is in shock here. We never expected this to happen," said a Muslim teacher in Mandalay, requesting anonymity.
Rumours that violent agitators were heading for the city had set its Muslim community on edge, he said. Buddhist monks known for their anti-Islamic views last year staged several street protests in Mandalay.
In Meikhtila, at least one mosque, an Islamic religious school, several shops and a government office were set alight, said a fire service official, who declined to be named. Reuters saw both Buddhist and Muslim homes burned.
Sectarian unrest is common in central Myanmar, although reports were stifled under the military dictatorship.
Three people died in Sinbyukyun in 2006 when Buddhists attacked homes and shops belonging to Muslims and ethnic Indians, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable.
"The incident reveals underlying tense inter-ethnic relations in the heartland," said the cable, which also referenced similar communal riots in Kyaukse, a town near Meikhtila, in 2003.