The Burmese army took control of a ruined city yesterday, imposing a tense calm after clashes between Buddhists and Muslims left piles of corpses in the streets and buildings ablaze in the worst bloodshed to hit the South-east Asian nation this year.
The official death toll in the worst-affected city of Meikhtila stands at 31 dead, state-run television said, although local estimates put it even higher.
President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in Meikhtila and three nearby townships on Friday after riot police and a dusk-to-dawn curfew had failed to stem violence triggered by an argument between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owners of a gold shop.
"The violence and looting stopped suddenly as soon as the military arrived," said a Meikhtila police officer.
The unleashing of ethnic hatred, suppressed during 49 years of military dictatorship that ended in March 2011, is challenging the reformist government of one of Asia's most ethnically diverse countries.
That government has released dissidents, held a free by-election and lifted censorship in Burma's historic democratic transition. But it has faced criticism over its failure to halt worsening relations between Buddhists and Muslims.
Sending soldiers onto Burma's streets is potentially risky for a reformist government eager to distance itself from a military widely despised for its past human rights abuses, but violence-weary residents of Meikhtila supported the move.
"Even though I am Buddhist, I was not safe," said Khin Ktay. "I had to run away because I was afraid of the killings since I am living among Muslims."
Muslim resident Zaw Min Htay also welcomed martial law, although he questioned why the government had taken three days to impose it. "If they had made this law in previous days, we would have gotten peace sooner," he said, echoing residents who said the police had not done enough to stem the violence.