yangon, myanmar – Myanmar's government warned Monday that religious violence could threaten democratic reforms after anti-Muslim mobs rampaged through three more towns in the country's predominantly Buddhist heartland.
The mobs destroyed mosques and burned dozens of homes over the weekend despite attempts by the government to stem the nation's latest outbreak of sectarian violence.
In an announcement Monday night on state television, the government pledged to make "utmost efforts" to halt the violence and incitement of racial and religious unrest.
"We also urge the people to avoid religious extremes and violence which could jeopardize the country's democratic reform and development," it said.
President Thein Sein had declared an emergency in the affected areas of central Myanmar on Friday and deployed army troops to the worst-hit city, Meikhtila, where at least 32 people were killed.
According to the U.N., more than 12,000 people were displaced. Monday's announcement said the displaced people would be resettled as soon as calm was restored.
Muslims in Meikhtila, who make 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.
The authorities said they detained at least 35 people allegedly involved in arson and violence. But residents and activists said the police did little to stop the rioters or reacted too slowly, after a dispute Wednesday in Meikhtila between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers brought anti-Muslim mobs into the streets.
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.
About a third of the nation's population consists of ethnic minority groups, and most have waged wars against the government for autonomy.
Local authorities in the nation's largest city, Yangon, more than 300 miles south of Meikhtila, told shop owners to close by 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. Monday. A police officer contacted by phone from the city's Sanchuang township described the action as a precautionary measure. He declined to give his name.
Earlier Monday, Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut warned that instigators of violence were stoking rumors to heighten people's anxieties and emotions.
For most of Monday, false rumors circulated that riots had broken out in parts of Yangon, and that people were planning to burn down mosques and a busy market called Yuzana Plaza, where many shopkeepers hurriedly shut their stalls. Police were dispatched to Mingalartaungnyunt, an eastern suburb, to secure the area, although no violence occurred.