22 Mar 2013

Religious violence spreads in Myanmar

10:58 pm on 22 March 2013

Religious violence is continuing in central Myanmar where it is believed at least 20 people have been killed in three days of violence.

The central town of Meiktila is locked down and access is being refused to journalists, the ABC reports.

However, a number of videos appearing on social media sites show burning buildings, and witnesses claim charred bodies lay unclaimed on the streets of the town.

State media and a local hospital say five people have perished in the violence, while a local lawmaker told AFP that about 25 people had been killed, but there has been no verification for the toll.

The violence began on Wednesday, apparently triggered by an argument between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owners of a gold shop.

Mosques and religious buildings and homes have been burnt in riots that followed, which are now feared to be spreading to surrounding villages.

The violence comes as Myanmar struggles with serious tensions between Muslims and Buddhists that have marred international optimism over dramatic political reforms since the end of military rule two years ago.

There has been long-running concern that communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Western Rakhine state would spread to the rest of the country.

A local police officer said an order had been given to shoot rioters below the waist if necessary to restore order.

Myanmar's Muslims - largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent - account for an estimated 4% of the population of roughly 60 million, although the country has not conducted a census in three decades.

Sectarian unrest has occasionally broken out in the past in some areas across the country, with Rakhine state a flashpoint for the tensions.