BANGKOK — Burma is sending the army to quell spreading sectarian unrest in the center of the country. The announcement came on the third day of fighting between Buddhists and Muslims that left at least 20 people dead and scores injured.
Burmese President Thein Sein Friday declared a state of emergency in four townships in the central part of the country to prevent deadly communal fighting and looting from spreading.
Burma's state television, MRTV-4, made the late afternoon announcement amid reports of continued clashes between armed groups of Buddhists and Muslims.
The news reader said the order covered Meikhtila, Wan Twin, Ma Hlaing,and Thar Si townships.
He says in order to be more effective in controlling the situation, they will get help from the army. This order, he says, will be effective until further notice.
A spokesperson from the office of Burma's president released a statement saying that despite the army's involvement the president has not declared martial law.
The area where fighting has been occurring is about 150 kilometers south of Mandalay.
Clashes broke out in Meikhtila Wednesday after a dispute between a Muslim gold shop owner and a Buddhist customer got physical and groups of people took sides.
Locals say hundreds of angry Muslims and Buddhists fought on the streets armed with knives and clubs, burned houses, and looted shops.
One man begged looters not to set fire to his business. He asked them just to take what they want.
State media have been portraying the clashes as simply criminal without mentioning the fighting between religious divisions. At the Meikhtila police station Friday, one local officer who answered the phone claimed the situation was under control.
Meanwhile, online images are circulating of charred bodies and burning homes and vehicles.
A local reporter in the township reached by phone described a chaotic scene.
"One thing is sure, law and order doesn't work. And then, what [the] government announces and the ground situation is totally different," said the reporter.
Burma is a majority Buddhist nation but with numerous ethnic and religious minorities.
Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have erupted in the past into violence and are still simmering over fighting last year.
In Burma's western Rakhine state clashes between Buddhists and Muslims left close to 200 people dead and 120,000 left homeless.
International concerns are being expressed that, if the communal fighting is not properly handled, religious tensions could spread in Burma and disrupt its reform efforts.