MEIKHTILA, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's army took control of a ruined central city on Saturday, imposing a tense calm after several days of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims left piles of corpses in the streets and buildings ablaze in the worst sectarian bloodshed to hit the Southeast Asian nation this year.
Truckloads of soldiers could be seen patrolling Meikhtila and taking up positions at intersections and banks as authorities delivered food and water to thousands of displaced Muslims. Some residents, who had cowered indoors for days since the mayhem began Wednesday, emerged from their homes to take in the destruction.
President Thein Sein, a former general who vowed to bring democracy to Myanmar after half a century of military rule, imposed a state of emergency in the region Friday to stop violence from spreading. The unrest was the first of its kind here since two similar bouts of bloodshed shook western Rakhine state last year, and its spread highlights the government's failure to reign in anti-Muslim sentiment in a predominantly Buddhist country, where even monks have staged anti-Muslim rallies and called on their supporters to drive out opponents with arms.
It was not immediately clear which side bore the brunt of the latest unrest, but terrified Muslims, who make about 30 percent of Meikhtila's 100,000 inhabitants, stayed off the streets Friday as their shops and homes burned and angry Buddhist residents and monks tried to stop firefighters from dousing the blazes. Riot police crisscrossed town seizing machetes and hammers from anxious Buddhist mobs.
At least five mosques were torched and thousands of terrified Muslims have fled their homes, escorted away by police to two make-shift camps. Some Buddhists, meanwhile, have sought shelter at local monasteries.
"Calm has been restored after troops have taken charge of security, said Win Htein, an opposition lawmaker from Meikhtila. "So far, nearly 6,000 Muslim people have been relocated at a stadium and a police station for their safety."
Residents said rescue workers and volunteers were arriving from other towns to help, and local Buddhists were giving food and water to displaced Muslims.
Little appeared to be left of some palm tree-lined neighborhoods, though, where whole plots were reduced to smoldering masses of twisted debris and ash. Broken glass, destroyed motorcycles and overturned tables littered roads beside rows of burnt-out homes and shops, evidence of the widespread chaos that swept the town.
Residents described finding gruesome scenes. Local businessman San Hlaing said he counted 28 bodies this week, all men, piled in groups around the town, including on a highway.
The government's struggle to contain the violence is proving another major challenge Thein Sein's reformist administration as it attempts to chart a path to democracy after nearly half a century of military rule that once crushed all dissent.
Thein Sein took office two years ago this month, and despite ushering in an era of reform, he has faced not only violence in Rakhine state, but an upsurge in fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels in the north and major protests at a northern copper mine where angry residents — emboldened by promises of freedom of expression — have come out to denounce land grabbing.
The devastation in Meikhtila was reminiscent of last year's clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya, which left hundreds of people dead and more than 100,000 displaced — almost all of them Muslim. The Rohingya are widely perceived as illegal migrants and foreigners from Bangladesh; the Muslim population of Meikhtila is believed to be mostly of Indian origin.
This week's chaos began began Wednesday after an argument broke out between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers. After news spread that a Muslim man had killed a Buddhist monk, Buddhist mobs began rampaging through a Muslim neighborhood and the situation spun out of control.
Residents and activists said the police did little to stop the rioters or reacted too slowly, allowing the violence to escalate. "They were like scarecrows in a paddy field," San Hlaing said.
San Htwe, a 39-year-old housewife, said she could see police and soldiers "everywhere" in Meikhtila on Saturday but: "I don't feel at ease because I'm afraid that the situation will be like in Rakhine" — where Buddhist and Muslims communities live in near-total segregation.
She said her 8-year old son was already traumatized by the riots, and could barely eat. "Whenever he hears shouting, he says, in panic: 'Mom, let's run! The kalar are coming." Kalar is a derogatory word for Muslims.
"I think most children here have experienced trauma," she said. "I worry that it will remain in their minds forever."
There were indications on Friday that the violence had already spread to at least one village on the outskirts of Meikhtila, about 550 kilometers (340 miles) north of the main city of Yangon.
Local activist Myint Myint Aye said fires were burning in the nearby village of Chan Aye, where shops were looted but calm was restored later in the day.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was deeply concerned about communal violence, loss of life and property damage in Meikhtila, and U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell had raised its concerns with senior Myanmar government officials.
"We welcome and encourage the efforts of government authorities, community leaders, civil society and political party leaders to restore calm, to foster dialogue and increase tolerance in a manner that respects human rights and due process of law," Nuland told a news briefing.
Occasional isolated violence involving Myanmar's majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities has occurred for decades, even under the authoritarian military governments that ruled Myanmar from 1962 until 2011.
But since an elected, though still military-backed, government took power two years ago, people have been using the Internet and social media in increasing numbers, and the press has been unshackled, with censorship mostly dropped and privately owned daily newspapers expected to hit the streets in the next few months.