MEIKHTILA, Myanmar — Myanmar's army took control of a ruined central city on Saturday, imposing a tense calm after clashes between Buddhists and Muslims left piles of corpses in the streets and buildings ablaze in the worst sectarian bloodshed to hit the Southeast Asian nation this year.
Truckloads of soldiers patrolled Meikhtila, taking up positions at intersections and banks as authorities delivered food and water to some 6,000 displaced Muslims who fled to makeshift camps at a local stadium and a police station. The government put the death toll at 32, according to state television, which reported that bodies had been found as authorities began cleaning up the area on Saturday.
President Thein Sein, a former general who vowed to bring democracy to Myanmar after half a century of military rule, imposed a state of emergency in the region Friday in a bid to end clashes that began two days earlier.
The unrest was the first of its kind in the country since two similar episodes shook western Rakhine state last year, and the spread of sectarian conflict has underscored both the challenges of reform and the government's failure to rein in anti-Muslim sentiment in a predominantly Buddhist nation. Even monks have armed themselves and taken advantage of newfound freedoms to stage anti-Muslim rallies.
It was not immediately clear which side bore the brunt of the latest unrest, but at least five mosques were torched, and terrified Muslims, who make up about 30 percent of Meikhtila's 100,000 inhabitants, have stayed off the streets as their shops and homes burned and Buddhist mobs carrying machetes and hammers tried to stop firefighters from dousing the flames.
Residents complained that police had stood by and done little to stop the mayhem. But "calm has been restored since troops took charge of security," said Win Htein, an opposition lawmaker from Meikhtila.
Some residents, who had cowered indoors since the mayhem began Wednesday, emerged from their homes to inspect the destruction.
Little appeared to be left of some palm tree-lined neighborhoods, though, where the legs of victims could be seen poking out from smoldering masses of twisted debris and ash. Broken glass, charred cars and motorcycles and overturned tables littered roads beside rows of burned-out homes and shops, evidence of the widespread chaos that swept the town.
Local businessman San Hlaing said he counted 28 bodies this week, all men, piled in groups around the town, including beside a highway.
The struggle to contain the violence has proven another major challenge to Thein Sein's reformist administration, which has also faced an upsurge in fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels in the north and major protests at a northern copper mine where angry residents – emboldened by promises of freedom of expression – have come out to denounce land grabbing.
The devastation was reminiscent of last year's clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that left hundreds of people dead and more than 100,000 displaced – almost all of them Muslim. The Rohingya are widely perceived as illegal migrants and foreigners from Bangladesh; the Muslim population of Meikhtila is believed to be mostly of Indian origin.
This week's chaos began Wednesday after an argument broke out between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers. Once news spread that a Muslim man had killed a Buddhist monk, Buddhist mobs rampaged through a Muslim neighborhood and the situation quickly spiraled out of control.
Residents and activists said the police did little to stop the rioters or reacted too slowly, allowing the violence to escalate. "They were like scarecrows in a paddy field," San Hlaing said.
Khin Maung Swe, a 72-year-old Muslim lawyer who said he lost all his savings, also complained authorities did nothing to disperse the mobs.
"If the military and police had showed up in force, those troublemakers would have run away," he said, inspecting the remains of his damaged home. "There would have been no violence if the security forces had just fired shots into the air to scare them away."
San Htwe, a 39-year-old housewife, said she could see police and soldiers "everywhere" in Meikhtila on Saturday but did not feel at ease. "I'm afraid that the situation will be like in Rakhine" – where sectarian tensions have split an entire state and Buddhist and Muslim communities live in near-total segregation, constantly fearing more violence.
San Htwe said her 8-year-old son was already traumatized by the riots and could barely eat. "Whenever he hears shouting, he says, in panic, `Mom, let's run! The kalar are coming." Kalar is a derogatory word for Muslims.
"I think most children here have experienced trauma," she said. "I worry that it will remain in their minds forever."
Residents said rescue workers and volunteers were arriving from other towns to help, and that local Buddhists were giving food and water to displaced Muslims. Some Buddhists sought shelter at local monasteries.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was deeply concerned about communal violence, loss of life and property damage in Meikhtila, and that U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell had raised the concerns with senior Myanmar government officials.
"We welcome and encourage the efforts of government authorities, community leaders, civil society and political party leaders to restore calm, to foster dialogue and increase tolerance in a manner that respects human rights and due process of law," Nuland told a news briefing.
Occasional isolated violence involving Myanmar's majority Buddhist and minority Muslim communities has occurred for decades, even under the authoritarian military governments that ruled the country from 1962 to 2011.