Damaging religious buildings and creating religious riots is inappropriate for the democratic society we are trying to create. —Ye Htut
LASHIO, Myanmar — Hundreds of Buddhists on motorcycles waved iron rods and bamboo poles and threw rocks in this northeastern Myanmar town Wednesday, a day after another Buddhist mob torched a mosque, a Muslim orphanage and other buildings in a new wave of violence targeting the religious minority.
Many Buddhists and Muslims stayed locked inside their homes and shops were shuttered after Tuesday's violence in Lashio town, near the border with China, the latest region to fall prey to the country's spreading sectarian violence. The rioting in Lashio was sparked by reports that a Muslim man had set fire to a Buddhist woman.
Wednesday morning was quiet, but by afternoon several hundred young men, screaming and waving sticks, roamed the downtown area on motorcycles near City Hall. A Buddhist monk was seated on the back of one of the motorcycles, waving a stick.
On another street, the crowd threw rocks at buildings. Many people were too afraid to step outside.
"My family is staying inside. We are afraid of being attacked. There are rumors that more violence will break out today," said one Muslim resident, Ko Maung Gyi, who spoke by telephone from inside his locked home in Lashio's main Muslim neighborhood.
Deadly violence between Buddhists and Muslims has occurred since last year in other parts of Myanmar, first in a western region and then in central towns. The new flare-up will reinforce doubts that President Thein Sein's government can or will act to contain the violence.
There were no reported fatalities after Tuesday night's violence in Lashio, a remote mountain town, and no immediate reports of how many people may have been injured.
Order was initially restored after authorities imposed a security measure banning gatherings of more than five people. The town's main market was closed, and many shops and streets were empty, said local politician Sai Myint Maung.
"I never expected that such racial violence would erupt in Lashio," he said. "Our small town is multiethnic and we have lived in peace for a long time."
The government appealed for calm.
"Damaging religious buildings and creating religious riots is inappropriate for the democratic society we are trying to create," presidential spokesman Ye Htut said on his Facebook page. The message cautiously noted that "two religious buildings and some shops" in Lashio were burned, without specifying whether they were Muslim or Buddhist.
"Any criminal act will be dealt with according to the law," Ye Htut's statement said.
A 48-year-old man accused of setting fire to a 24-year-old Buddhist woman was arrested, state television reported. It said the man, identified as an Indian Muslim, threw gasoline on the woman. The report appeared to put to rest earlier questions over the man's religion.
The man was charged with causing grievous injuries and arson, as well as drug possession due to stimulants found in his pocket, the TV report said. The woman was being treated for burns to her chest, back and hands.
The report did not mention whether any members of Tuesday night's Buddhist mob were arrested, an omission likely to fuel more questions over whether minority Muslims can find justice in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar.
Minority Muslims have been the main victims of the deadly violence, but so far only Muslims have been prosecuted. There have been no criminal trials against members of the country's Buddhist majority.
After Tuesday's alleged immolation, an irate crowd of more than 100 people, including Buddhist monks, gathered outside a police station demanding that the alleged attacker be handed over, state TV reported.
The crowd then rampaged through the town, setting fire to Lashio's largest mosque and several shops, the television report said.
The mob also set fire to a Muslim school and orphanage that was so badly charred that only two walls remained, said Min Thein, a resident contacted by telephone. Police and other witnesses confirmed the school burning.
Myanmar's sectarian violence first flared in western Rakhine state last year, when hundreds of people died in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that drove about 140,000 others, mostly Muslims, from their homes.
The clashes 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. Earlier this month, a court sentenced seven Muslims from Meikthila to prison terms for their role in the violence.
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 Myanmar'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 trip to the U.S. that all perpetrators of the sectarian violence would be brought to justice.
Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win in Yangon and Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok contributed to this report.