Religious riots between Buddhists and Muslims have rocked a central Burmese town for two days, leaving at least 20 dead and prompting President Thein Sein to declare a state of emergency, the AP reports. A local reporter estimated the number of dead at closer to 40, the New York Times notes. At least five mosques as well as Muslim homes have been torched in Meikhtila, a town of about 100,000 people, about a third of which are Muslim; angry Buddhists are preventing officials from extinguishing the blazes.
The violence reportedly began after a Wednesday dispute between a Muslim shopkeeper and Buddhist customers. After a Buddhist monk was killed, a mob took to the streets of a Muslim neighborhood. Violence has spread from Meikhtila to neighboring villages; locals say they're afraid to go outside and Muslims have reportedly fled to a nearby sports stadium. Police "just stood watching the rioters, and did not take any action," says a former political prisoner. The Times reports that journalists were forced by Buddhist monks, one armed with a sword, to relinquish their cameras' memory cards.