The scale of devastation wreaked by last month’s communal riots in central Burma has been revealed by new satellite images. The remains of hundreds of smoldering homes scar three once thriving Muslim neighborhoods of Meiktila, a town of 100,000 people around 500 km north of Rangoon. Human Rights Watch (HRW) claims 828 buildings were obliterated across some 24 hectares. Most shocking has been the leading role the Buddhist clergy played in the bloodshed, creating a tinderbox atmosphere across the country that shows little sign of dissipating.
The sectarian violence was sparked by a seemingly innocuous dispute at a Muslim-owned gold shop in Meiktila on March 20, yet soon spread across the region with frightening intensity. Before long 43 people had been killed, at least five mosques torched and around 12,000 people had fled to ramshackle displacement camps outside the town. The government imposed a state of emergency and curfews in certain hard-hit areas, but the violence nevertheless swelled to 11 nearby townships where Muslim districts were plundered. Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW, has since lamented “the failure of the police to stop wanton killings and the burning of entire neighborhoods.”
Similar Buddhist-Muslim violence devastated western Burma’s Arakan state last year in clashes that saw some people 120,000 forced from their homes and more than 120 lives lost. The fighting was mainly targeted at the Rohingya, a distinct Muslim group not included in Burma’s official 135 ethnic groups and thus, branded illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The government was therefore quick to brand the Arakan crisis an “immigration issue,” although the clearly anti-Muslim character of the latest violence, which did not involve the Rohingya, has since heralded a re-evaluation of earlier incidents. Sources in Meiktila told TIME on Tuesday that the situation there remains tense; Muslims are terrified to go out after dark and are not able to visit the town’s market to trade or collect supplies.
The clashes have been most notable for the brand of militant Buddhism that appears to be gaining ground in Burma since the end of junta rule in March 2011. Monks have unparalleled moral authority in traditional Burmese society. Wirathu, an outspoken monk who was jailed in 2003 for stirring religious clashes in the northern city of Mandalay, has dubbed himself “the Burmese bin Laden” in reference to the jihadi leader Osama bin Laden’s religious fervor, despite his hatred of all things Islamic. The 45-year-old posted an inflammatory speech online last week that warned “once these evil Muslims have control and authority over us, they will not let us practice our religion” and accused Muslims of accumulating “money to get our young Buddhist women.”
Wirathu is a leading figure of an extremist Buddhist movement identified by the numerals 969 — representing the nine attributes of the Lord Buddha, six attributes of Buddhist teachings and nine attributes of monks. Abu Tahay, president of the Union National for Development Party, a Rohingya Muslim political group, told TIME that 969 stickers are common on the front of houses and taxis around Rangoon. “This sticker is now the symbol of the racists,” he says. “Not only the President but [democracy icon] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should come out and give a concrete statement about the multicultural nature of our country.”
Tensions in the former capital have been further heightened by a fire at an Islamic school that claimed the lives of 13 children in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Around 70 youngsters were sleeping in the two-story building near the city center when a blaze broke out at around 2:40 a.m. local time. While the official explanation is that the fire was caused by faulty wiring in a transformer on the second floor, witnesses told reporters at the scene that 10 men turned up in car, dosed the building with petrol and threw in a burning torch. TIME could not independently verify either report.
Official figures indicate that Burma’s population is only 4% Muslim, although many argue this is implausibly low considering the bevy of mosques that characterize almost every urban area. Religious intolerance is certainly not unknown in the country, with a raft of discriminatory legislation and pogroms against Muslims and South Asian immigrants after xenophobic dictator Ne Win seized power though a coup in 1962. The current situation is clearly troubling for reformist President Thein Sein as he marks the second anniversary of taking office. The former general has warned that he will not hesitate to use tough measures to maintain calm, but this is clearly an unsettling prospect considering the half-century of brutal military rule that his administration is attempting to banish from memory.