25 Mar 2013

Troops impose uneasy calm in Myanmar

10:45 am on 25 March 2013

Hundreds of troops are keeping an uneasy calm in central Myanmar where martial law has been imposed to quell three days of bloody unrest between Buddhists and Muslims.

State-run television says the official death toll in the worst-affected city of Meikhtila stands at 31, although local estimates put it higher.

President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in Meikhtila and three nearby townships on Friday after riot police and a dusk-to-dawn curfew had failed to stem violence triggered by an argument between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owners of a gold shop, Reuters reports.

The unleashing of ethnic hatred, suppressed during 49 years of military dictatorship that ended in March 2011, is challenging the reformist government of one of Asia's most ethnically diverse countries.

Television footage from Meikhtila showed Muslims being evacuated under police protection amid jeering crowds on Friday.

About 2000 people, mainly Muslims, remained under police protection at a sports stadium, police said, while several hundred Buddhists sheltered at monasteries and police stations.

That government has released dissidents, held a free by-election and lifted censorship in the country's historic democratic transition, but has faced criticism over its failure to halt worsening relations between Buddhists and Muslims.

Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country, but about 5% of its 60 million people are Muslim.