Communal violence has gripped Burma again, as a Buddhist mob clashed with local Muslims in the town of Meiktila, killing at least 20 and displacing thousands. The unrest, which forced President Thein Sein to declare a state of emergency on Friday, is a harrowing reminder of the sectarian strife that decimated the country’s western Arakan (Rakhine) state last year, and presents another challenge to the country’s fledgling democracy.
The conflict was reportedly sparked by an argument between a Muslim shopkeeper and Buddhist customers over a gold ring. The disagreement soon escalated, leading four gold shops to be burned to the ground and a 1,000-strong mob to run riot through a Muslim neighborhood. Police seized knives, swords and homemade weapons from marauding young men on Friday.
Journalists attempting to report in the area have been threatened. A photographer for the Associated Press reportedly had a foot-long dagger placed against his neck by a monk who had his face covered. The confrontation was defused when the photographer handed over his camera’s memory card. Late on Friday, the Burmese government said that nine reporters trapped amid the unrest had been rescued by local police and evacuated from the area.
On social media, residents reported seeing bodies scattered by the side of the road and women and children lying helpless, their homes destroyed. Aung, a Muslim lawyer living in Meiktila, told TIME that the violence was already spreading to nearby townships. “They are burning mosques and houses and stealing Muslim property,” said Aung. Many Buddhists are reportedly too afraid to leave their homes and were sheltering in monasteries or other locations far from the bloodshed. “We don’t feel safe and we have now moved inside a monastery,” Sein Shwe, a Buddhist shopkeeper, told the AP. “The situation is unpredictable and dangerous.”
Burma, also known as Myanmar, is no stranger to civil strife. At least one-third of the country’s 60 million people are ethnic minorities. After the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, there were pogroms against the Indian and Chinese populations. And in the decades since, ethnic insurgencies have flared periodically, most recently in Kachin state. Earlier this year, repeated clashes in Arakan state between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists left some 115,000 displaced and more than 100 dead, according the U.N. In that instance, the violence was sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, allegedly by three Muslim men. The clashes forced roughly 13,000 Rohingya to flee Burma on flimsy boats last year, and around 500 people are believed to have died at sea as a result. The Rohingya, who have lived in the region for generations, are officially stateless and described by the U.N. Refugee Agency as the one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. They are not included in the list of 135 official ethnic groups in Burma and face restrictions on travel, marriage and reproduction.
However, the current violence in Meiktila has called into question the root cause of the Rakhine strife. Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project NGO that works for the Rohingya, told TIME that the perception of last year’s unrest as sectarian rather than religious was inaccurate. “It was primarily anti-Muslim violence that took place in Rakhine [state] despite the issue of statelessness — Kaman Muslims [a distinct Islamic group granted citizenship] were also targeted and expelled from townships. I was in Rangoon 10 days ago and handed a 14-page anti-Muslim pamphlet that did not mention Rakhine.”
Vijay Nambiar, the U.N.’s Burma envoy, issued a statement expressing “deep sorrow at the tragic loss of lives and destruction” and asked for local figures to “publicly call on their followers to abjure violence, respect the law and promote peace.” Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell said he was “deeply concerned about reports of violence and widespread property damage in Meiktila.” There has been no reaction yet from opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laurate Aung San Suu Kyi.