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The government announced the imposition of martial law in central Burma’s Meikhtila as rioting continued for the third day and reports surfaced that mobs, which included Buddhist monks, have been threating and destroying reporters’ footage and photographs.
At 4pm on Friday, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the township and called on the Burmese military to restore order.
Earlier in the day, the Media Freedom Committee released a report claiming journalists working for both domestic and foreign press agencies were being confronted by violent mobs in Meikhtila that threatened to physically harm reporters and seize cameras and destroy memory cards.
A DVB reporter was also threatened by rioters wielding swords last night and was forced to delete his footage.
According to president’s office spokesperson Zaw Htay, nine journalists, including reporters working for AFP, Messenger news journal and RFA, who were trapped inside a monastery have been safely evacuated.
Death toll figures have varied widely but are impossible to verify as government statistics continue to claim that only a few people have died after a row in a local gold shop ignited violent sectarian riots between Muslims and Buddhists.
Meikhtila is home to the Burmese Air Force’s Central Command, [Meikhtila] Air Base and the Burmese Army’s 99th Light Infantry Division. However, before martial law was declared the military had not attempted to bring calm to the area, apart from evacuating and protecting an Innwa Bank branch.
As the looting and rioting continued for a third day, civil society groups rushed to organise donation drives and deliver food.
According to one activist on the ground, hundreds of Muslim residents began leaving their homes on Thursday night with their hands raised above their heads and are taking shelter at a local sports stadium.
The refugees were being provided with food and water by sympathisers, most of whom were Buddhist pacifists who had spent a majority of their lives living peacefully alongside their Muslim neighbours in Meikhtila, said one local All-Burma Federation of Student Unions member.
Win Htein, National League for Democracy’s Lower House representative in the town, said there are around 900 Muslims at the stadium and 200 at the town’s police station.
According to the union member the group was trying to deliver aid to the refugees and has begun setting up a donation fund through its nationwide network.
“We have contacted student union members from Rangoon and Mandalay as well as Muslim student organisations to open a channel for donations. We are also talking with [government- backed] Head Monk Associations to provide food and shelter for the refugees,” said the ABFSU member.
Locals have also complained that the police were slow to act and have done little to control the violent mobs that have been razing houses and looting for the past three days.
“The [police] haven’t been taking very effective measures. Yesterday, senior regional police officials arrived in town and the mob were ransacking a shop right in front of them. They stopped their vehicle, took a few photos of the incident and then took off,” said the ABFSU member.
Shops in the town remained closed today while elderly residents have evacuated their homes.
Activists claimed most rioters were not residents in the town.
“We assume they are from the suburbs but not the town’s residents,” said the ABFSU member.
The riots in central Burma have been the largest explosion of communal violence, since two separate bouts of unrest in Arakan state divided communities and displaced more than 100,000 people last year.