YANGON, (AP): Sectarian violence spread to a new region of Burma, with a mob burning down a mosque, a Muslim orphanage and shops in a northeastern town after rumors spread that a Muslim man had set fire to a Buddhist woman, authorities said Wednesday.
There were no reported fatalities, according to a police officer and a Buddhist monk in Lashio, the remote northern town near China’s border where the violence erupted Tuesday night. The full extent of the unrest was still unclear, with no immediate reports of how many people may have been injured.
Deadly sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims has occurred since last year in other parts of the country, 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.
The government quickly condemned the violence in a statement Wednesday that urged the public to stay 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 cautiously noted that “two religious buildings and some shops” In Lashio were burned, without specifying if they were Muslim or Buddhist.
“Any criminal act will be dealt with according to the law,” the statement said.
A Lashio police officer and a Buddhist monk contacted Wednesday morning by telephone said the town’s largest mosque and a Muslim orphanage were among the buildings set afire after an irate mob of about 150 people rampaged through the town. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety.
The town was calm Wednesday morning after authorities imposed a security measure than bans gatherings of more than five people, the police officer said.
A politician in Lashio in Shan state, Sai Myint Maung, said the mob had initially gathered outside a police station demanding that the alleged culprit in the unconfirmed immolation be handed over.
According to the rumors, the man doused the woman with gasoline and set her alight. The attack could not be confirmed, but a Muslim-oriented news website that described it said the attacker was not Muslim.
The website of the Muslim-oriented M-media Group said Lashio’s biggest mosque was torched by a mob while firefighters stood by, and a Muslim school and orphanage was also burned down. It did not say if there were any casualties. Its report acknowledged the burning of the woman but said the perpetrator was not a Muslim.
The website’s accounts of past violence against Muslims in Burma were subsequently reported in other media. Several photos circulating on Facebook also showed what was purported to be the mosque in flames.
The sectarian violence began in western Rakhine state last year, when hundreds died in clashes between Buddhist and Muslims that drove about 140,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes. The violence had seemed confined to that region, but in late March, similar Buddhist-led violence swept the town of Meikthila in central Burma, killing at least 43 people.
Several other towns in central Burma experienced less deadly violence, mostly involving the torching of Muslim businesses and mosques.
Muslims account for about 4 percent of the nation’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 U.S. trip that all perpetrators of the sectarian violence would be brought to justice, but so far, only Muslims have been arrested and sentenced for crimes connected to the attacks.
Muslims, however, have accounted for far more of the victims of the violence, and rights groups have accused certain authorities of fomenting a campaign of ethnic cleansing.