YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Anti-Muslim mobs rampaged through three more towns in Myanmar's predominantly Buddhist heartland over the weekend, destroying mosques and burning dozens of homes despite government efforts to stem the nation's latest outbreak of sectarian violence.
President Thein Sein had declared an emergency in central Myanmar on Friday and deployed army troops to the worst-hit city, Meikhtila, where 32 people were killed and 10,000 mostly Muslim residents were displaced. But even as soldiers restored order there after several days of anarchy in which armed Buddhists torched the city's Muslim quarters, the unrest has spread south toward the capital, Naypyitaw.
A Muslim resident of Tatkone, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Meikhtila, said by telephone that a group of about 20 men ransacked a one-story brick mosque there late Sunday night, pelting it with stones and smashing windows before soldiers fired shots to drive them away. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, he said he believed the perpetrators were not from Tatkone.
A day earlier, another mob burned down a mosque and 50 homes in the nearby town of Yamethin, state television reported. Another mosque and several buildings were destroyed the same day in Lewei, farther south. It was not immediately clear who was behind the violence, and no clashes or casualties were reported in the three towns.
Edginess over the situation spread Monday to the nation's largest city, Yangon, more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) south of Meikhtila, although no actual unrest was apparent.
Rumors circulated that a busy market called Yuzana Plaza would be burned down, leading many shopkeepers to close for the day. In Mingalartaungnyunt, an eastern suburb of Yangon, more rumors led to additional shop closings and police arrived to secure the area, although no violence took place.
The upsurge in sectarian unrest is casting a shadow over Thein Sein's administration as it struggles to make democratic changes in the Southeast Asian country after half a century of army rule officially ended two years ago this month.
Similar violence that rocked western Rakhine state last year, pitting ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims, killed hundreds and drove 100,000 from their homes.
The Rohingya are widely denigrated as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and most are denied passports as a result. The Muslim population of central Myanmar, by contrast, is mostly of Indian origin and does not face the same questions over nationality.
The emergence of sectarian conflict beyond Rakhine state is an ominous development, one that indicates anti-Muslim sentiment has intensified nationwide since last year and, if left unchecked, could spread.
Sectarian and ethnic tensions are not new in Myanmar, which is also home to small Christian, Hindu and animist minorities.
Muslims account for about 4 percent of the nation's roughly 60 million people, and during the long era of authoritarian rule, military governments twice drove out hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, while smaller clashes had occurred elsewhere. About one third of the nation's population is comprised of ethnic minority groups, and most have waged wars against the government for autonomy.
Analysts say racism has also played a role. Unlike the ethnic Burman majority, most Muslims in Myanmar are of South Asian descent, populations with darker skin that migrated to Myanmar centuries ago from what are now parts of India and Bangladesh.
The latest bloodshed "shows that inter-communal tensions in Myanmar are not just limited to the Rakhine and Rohingya in northern Rakhine state," said Jim Della-Giacoma of the International Crisis Group. "Myanmar is a country with dozens of localized fault lines and grievances that were papered over during the authoritarian years that we are just beginning to see and understand. It is a paradox of transitions that greater freedom does allow these local conflicts to resurface."
"If a democratic state is the nation's goal, they need to find a place for all its people as equal citizens," Della-Giacoma said. "Given the country's history, it won't be easy."
The government has put the total death toll in Meikhtila at 32, and authorities say they have detained at least 35 people allegedly involved in arson and violence in the region.
On Sunday, Vijay Nambiar, the U.N. secretary-general's special adviser on Myanmar, toured Meikhtila, visiting displaced residents and calling on the government to punish those responsible.
Nambiar said he was encouraged to learn that some individuals in both communities had helped each other and that religious leaders were now advocating peace.
Muslims in Meikhtila, which makes up about 30 percent of the city's 100,000 inhabitants, appeared to have borne the brunt of the devastation. At least five mosques were set ablaze from Wednesday to Friday, and most homes and shops burned were Muslim-owned.
Chaos began Wednesday after an argument broke out between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers. Once news spread that a Muslim man had killed a Buddhist monk, Buddhist mobs rampaged through a Muslim neighborhood and the situation quickly spiraled out of control.
Residents and activists said the police did little to stop the rioters or reacted too slowly, allowing the violence to escalate.
One Muslim man in Meikhtila named Aung Thein, whose family has fled, said the situation was still tense there.
People are still threatening Muslims who have attempted to return to their destroyed homes to sift through the rubble and salvage their belongings, he said.
"We only want to return to our homes and rebuild our lives," he said.
Associated Press writers Todd Pitman and Grant Peck contributed to this report from Bangkok.