LASHIO, Myanmar (AP) — Hundreds of Buddhist men on motorcycles waved iron rods and bamboo poles and threw rocks in a northeastern Myanmar town on Wednesday, a day after a mosque and a Muslim orphanage were torched in a new wave of violence targeting the religious minority. Residents said a movie theater was burned as the mob sped around the town.
Many Buddhists and Muslims stayed locked inside their homes and shops were shuttered after Tuesday’s violence in Lashio town, near the border with China, the latest region to fall prey to the country’s spreading sectarian violence. The rioting in Lashio was sparked by reports that a Muslim man had set fire to a Buddhist woman.
Deadly violence between Buddhists and Muslims has occurred since last year in other parts of Myanmar, first in a western region and then in central towns. The new flare-up will reinforce doubts that President Thein Sein’s government can or will act to contain the violence and crack down on racial and religious intolerance.
Wednesday morning was quiet, but by afternoon several hundred young men, screaming and waving sticks, roamed the downtown area on motorcycles near City Hall. A Buddhist monk was seated on the back of one of the motorcycles, waving a stick.
On another street, the crowd threw rocks at buildings. Many people were too afraid to step outside. Smoke could be seen over at least one area of town, and local politician Sai Myint Maung said a movie theater had been burned and that there were rumors that more troublemakers were gathered on the outskirts of the town.
“The situation has changed 180 degrees. It was quiet the whole day and all of a sudden there is a fire and the situation has changed,” he said.
An officer from the No. 1 Lashio police station said police had been dispatched by truck to try to quell the new violence. The officer, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to release information, said at least four people were hurt.
“My family is staying inside. We are afraid of being attacked,” said one Muslim resident, Ko Maung Gyi, who spoke by telephone earlier from inside his locked home in Lashio’s main Muslim neighborhood.
“I never expected that such racial violence would erupt in Lashio,” he said. “Our small town is multiethnic and we have lived in peace for a long time.”
There were no reported fatalities after Tuesday night’s violence in the remote mountain town.
Order was initially restored after authorities banned gatherings of more than five people. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed and many shops and streets were empty, Sai Myint Maung said.
The government appealed for calm.
“Damaging religious buildings and creating religious riots is inappropriate for the democratic society we are trying to create,” presidential spokesman Ye Htut said on his Facebook page. The message noted that “two religious buildings and some shops” in Lashio were burned, without specifying whether they were Muslim or Buddhist.
“Any criminal act will be dealt with according to the law,” Ye Htut said.
A 48-year-old man accused of setting fire to a 24-year-old Buddhist woman was arrested, state television reported. It said the man, identified as an Indian Muslim, threw gasoline on the woman.
The man was charged with causing grievous injuries and arson, as well as drug possession due to stimulants found in his pocket, the TV report said. The woman was being treated for burns to her chest, back and hands.
The report did not mention whether any members of Tuesday night’s Buddhist mob were arrested, an omission likely to fuel more questions over whether minority Muslims can find justice in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar.
Minority Muslims have been the main victims of the deadly violence, but so far there have been no criminal trials against members of the country’s Buddhist majority.
After Tuesday’s alleged immolation, an irate crowd of more than 100 people, including Buddhist monks, gathered outside a police station demanding that the alleged attacker be handed over, state TV reported.
The crowd then rampaged through the town, setting fire to Lashio’s largest mosque and several shops, the television report said.
The mob also set fire to a Muslim school and orphanage that was so badly charred that only two walls remained, said Min Thein, a resident contacted by telephone. Police and other witnesses confirmed the school burning.
Myanmar’s sectarian violence first flared in western Rakhine state last year, when hundreds of people died in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that drove about 140,000 others, mostly Muslims, from their homes. Most are still living in refugee camps.
This month, authorities in two areas of Rakhine announced a regulation limiting Rohingya families to two children. The policy drew sharp criticism from Muslim leaders, rights groups and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell on Tuesday said the U.S. opposes coercive birth limitation policies, and called on Myanmar “to eliminate all such policies without delay.”
The clashes had seemed confined to that region, but in late March, similar Buddhist-led violence swept the town of Meikthila in central Myanmar, killing at least 43 people. Earlier this month, a court sentenced seven Muslims from Meikthila to prison terms for their role in the violence.
Several other towns in central Myanmar experienced less deadly violence, mostly involving the torching of Muslim businesses and mosques.
Muslims account for about 4 percent of Myanmar’s roughly 60 million people. Anti-Muslim sentiment is closely tied to nationalism and the dominant Buddhist religion, so leaders have been reluctant to speak up for the unpopular minority.
Thein Sein’s administration, which came to power in 2011 after half a century of military rule, has been heavily criticized for not doing enough to protect Muslims. He vowed last week during a trip to the U.S. that all perpetrators of the sectarian violence would be brought to justice.
Associated Press writers Aye Aye Win in Yangon and Jocelyn Gecker and Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.