YANGON, Myanmar—Myanmar President Thein Sein on Friday declared a state of emergency in Meikhtila and four other towns around it, where sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims over recent days has left as many as 20 dead and several dozen injured.
As torched buildings continued blazing in the central Myanmar town, international concern has poured in. Some observers feared the latest violence could be a sign of spreading religious tensions across the Buddhist-majority country that could threaten to unravel its dramatic reform process.
Ye Htut, a spokesperson for the president, said the state of emergency—which follows two nights of consecutive curfews in the town—was declared in part because forces there, comprising approximately a thousand police officers, "need more logistical support from the military." This, analysts say, could underscore the continued need for the army even in democratizing Myanmar. The military has taken a back seat in the political arena since Mr. Thein Sein's nominally civilian government took power.
"Social instability is always a good excuse for the [Myanmar] military to re-establish its centrality in politics and power," said Maung Zarni, a Myanmar academic who is also a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. "It will be used as an excuse to roll back the political liberalization the country is experiencing."
Police in Meikhtila revised their death toll to 11 on Friday from five, adding that some bodies were unidentifiable because they were badly burnt. But locals there and the town's representative to parliament say the number of dead is significantly higher, and likely to be dozens.
"I saw about 27 burnt bodies, piled up on the street," said Aung Nay Paing, a student at a technological university in the town, told The Wall Street Journal by phone. He added that the situation on Friday was "calm," with civil-society groups and other local organizations working to control tensions.
Buildings in the central Myanmar town—150 kilometers, or 90 miles south of Mandalay, the country's second-largest city—continued to burn on Friday. Six mosques were set ablaze, along with several Islamic schools, government buildings, local shops, cars and motorbikes, according to police. Tensions between Buddhist and Muslims erupted on Wednesday morning following an argument between a Buddhist couple and a Muslim gold seller, and built until ultimately hundreds of people were fighting in the streets.
The scenes in Meikhtila has echoes the conflict in Rakhine state, to the south, between Buddhists and Muslims, which last year saw more than 100 people killed and 120,000 others displaced, mostly ethnic minority Muslim Rohingyas.
Observers say, though, that the killings in this central Myanmar town raises the specter of a new facet to such conflicts, since they involve ethnic Burmese Muslims, rather than the ethnic minority Rohingyas, who aren't officially counted in the country's census and are seen as a foreign group by many in Myanmar. Central Myanmar is also of greater economic and political significance than Rakhine, and the town of Meikhtila houses important military bases, including the air force's central command.
Government statistics estimate that about 4% of Myanmar's population of 60 million is Muslim, but scholars say it could be as high as 10% since the official count doesn't include ethnic groups such as the Rohingyas. In Meikhtila, Muslims make up about 30% of the population.
International concern on the violence started to pour in Thursday. U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell said he was "deeply concerned" about the "violence and widespread property damage." The United Nations and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, too, expressed their concern and urged Myanmar's government to control the hostilities.
Two refugee camps have been set up to house those displaced from the violence, according to Win Htein, the town's member of parliament who belongs to the opposition National League for Democracy. The camps, he said, have about 1, 000 Muslims, with another estimated 5,000 Buddhists taking refuge at monasteries in Meikhtila. The town has a population of about 100, 000.
Opposition leader and democracy Aung San Suu Kyi —who has been criticized for remaining largely silent during last year's violence in Rakhine state—has remained quiet on these fresh hostilities, too. Nyan Win, a spokesperson for her National League for Democracy party, said the conflict is "not because of religious matters" but due to a lack of compromise on the part of the groups there.
"They have been living together for many years," said Mr. Nyan Win. "Why can't they accept living together, according to rule of law?"
As of Friday evening, martial law had not been declared in the town or its surrounding areas, with the army supporting the police force in maintaining order. Zaw Htay, a director at the office of the president, told The Wall Street Journal that martial law will only be imposed as a "second step, if the situation is still not stabilized."