The unrest broke out in the central town of Kyaukse on 19 October and spread to the city of Mandalay and then on to the capital Yangon, unnerving the ruling military which has rolled out a sweeping security crackdown.
Bangladesh has also tightened security along its frontier with Myanmar fearing a new influx of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims in the wake of the communal riots across the border.
Myanmar’s secretive junta confirmed last week that there had been “disturbances… between people professing different faiths” and said Kyaukse had been slapped with a general curfew, but that the trouble had died down.
Witness reports obtained by AFP said the trouble began in Kyaukse during mid-October festivals to mark the Buddhist Lent, including competitions and festivities centred on Buddhist monasteries.
After a minor dispute over one of the competitions a stone was thrown into a monastery compound, sparking anger among the monks who wrongly believed the occupants of a nearby mosque were responsible.
Several Muslims were injured in the ensuing rampage, while others fearing for their lives were taken into the homes of their Buddhist neighbours for protection, the witnesses said.
Despite the resolution of that conflict, exaggerated rumours of the trouble spread to politically active monks in Mandalay who travelled to Kyaukse, sparking riots and fires which left a dozen dead including a pregnant woman.
The ruling junta, which is ever fearful of public unrest that could flare into protests against the regime, took swift action against the Buddhist clergy who have been involved in political rebellion in the past.
“We have … summoned Muslim leaders and trustees of all the mosques …and warned against taking matters into their own hands…”
Ruling Buddhists intervene
The Buddhists’ ruling body, the Sangha, issued a notification banning all monks from leaving their monasteries between 19:00 and 04:00, a township-level official said.
“We have also summoned Muslim leaders and trustees of all the mosques in Yangon and warned them against taking matters into their own hands by way of safe-guarding their respective mosques,” he said.
Witnesses said monks seen patronising tea-shops after dark were rounded up by security personnel in the satellite town of Dagon in eastern Yangon.
In Yangon and Mandalay authorities secured permission to search monasteries for unauthorised pamphlets and other documents deemed to be inflammatory to community relations, and monks’ registration papers were checked.
Security officials were also monitoring mosques and monasteries and any monks seen travelling in and out of towns and cities were watched closely.
“All this indicates that military authorities are clamping down hard on those attempting to disturb the peace and will brook no nonsense from anyone including Buddhist monks,” said one local political analyst.
Aung San Suu Kyi protests
Suu Kyi supporters have clashed
The government is already on alert for unrest after 30 May clashes between a pro-junta mob and supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi which led to the democracy leader’s arrest.
In Bangladesh, the BSS news agency said border guards and police have been asked to be alert along the southeastern frontier amid the unrest.
It cited unconfirmed reports that panic-stricken ethnic Rohingya Muslims had thronged near the Bangladesh border following the clashes.
In the early 1990s some 250,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees flooded across the border into Bangladesh claiming atrocities by Myanmar’s military government. Most of them were later repatriated but some 20,000 remain in border camps.