Religious unrest in northeast Myanmar

Myanmar: Sectarian violence spread to a new region of Myanmar, with a mob burning shops in a northeastern town after unconfirmed rumors spread that a Muslim man had set fire to a Buddhist woman.

The spread beyond the western and central towns where deadly mob attacks and arsons have occurred since last year will reinforce doubts that President Thein Sein’s government can or will act to contain the violence.

The extent of Tuesday night’s violence was unclear, as the area is remote and officials were difficult to reach at a late hour. Unconfirmed reports on Muslim news websites said a large mosque and a Muslim orphanage had been burned down.

A politician in Lashio in Shan state, Sai Myint Maung, said authorities banned gatherings of more than five people after about 150 massed outside a police station demanding that the alleged culprit in the unconfirmed immolation be handed over. The mob also burned some stores, he said.

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.

A resident who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals confirmed by phone that some shops were burned near the police station and the hospital where the victim was said to have been taken. A Lashio resident, Than Htay, said he could see smoke and had heard about the ban on gatherings. He said calm had been restored.

However, the website of the Muslim-oriented M-media Group said Lashio’s biggest mosque had been 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.

While the account could not immediately be confirmed, the website’s accounts of past violence against Muslims in Myanmar 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 Myanmar, killing at least 43 people.

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 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.