Burma‘s president has declared a state of emergency after two days of sectarian violence in a central town that has killed at least 20 people.
The the town of Meikhtila remains tense and dangerous and residents are too scared to walk the streets, said Win Htein, a politician from the opposition National League for Democracy.
Fires set to Muslim homes continued to burn as angry Buddhist residents and monks prevented authorities from putting out the blazes, he said.
At least five mosques were set on fire during the violence that started on Wednesday, reportedly triggered by an argument between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers.
A Buddhist monk was among the first killed, inflaming tensions that led a Buddhist mob to rampage through a Muslim neighbourhood.
Meikhtila is about 340 miles (550km) north of the main city of Rangoon with a population of about 100,000 people, of whom about a third are Muslims, according to Win.
He said that before this week’s violence the community had 17 mosques.
It was difficult to determine the extent of destruction in the town because residents were too afraid to walk the streets and were sheltering in monasteries or other locations away from the violence.
“We don’t feel safe and we have now moved inside a monastery,” said Sein Shwe, a shop owner. “The situation is unpredictable and dangerous.”
Occasional isolated violence involving Burma’s majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities has occurred for decades.
The violence in Meikhtila was the latest sectarian unrest after clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya last year in western Rakhine state left more than 200 people dead and 100,000 homeless.
It is also the latest challenge for the government as it tries to keep peace in the country and navigate the transition from military rule to democracy.