YANGON - Anti-Muslim rioters burned shops and homes in a fresh outbreak of communal unrest in Myanmar, police said Sunday, as the former army-ruled nation grapples with destabilising religious violence.
Some 38 houses, nine businesses and a rice mill were torched during the unrest Saturday night, which erupted after a Muslim man was arrested on suspicion of attempting to rape a Buddhist woman in a village at Kanbalu in the central region of Sagaing, according to a regional police official.
"About 150 people gathered at the police station last night, calling for them to hand over the detainee. When police did not respond, they started setting fire to nearby shops," the official told AFP, asking to remain anonymous.
"These shops are believed to be owned by Muslim people but we are still trying to confirm it. Those people who attacked are believed to be Buddhists from two local villages," the source added. No injuries have been reported.
Several episodes of religious unrest -- mostly targeting Muslims -- have exposed deep rifts in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, casting a shadow over widely praised political reforms since military rule ended two years ago.
Rights groups have accused authorities of being unable or unwilling to contain the violence, which has left around 250 people dead and over 140,000 homeless. Myanmar has rejected the claims.
Last week watchdog Physicians for Human Rights said Myanmar risked "catastrophic" levels of conflict with "potential crimes against humanity and/or genocide" if authorities failed to stem anti-Muslim hate speech and a culture of impunity around the clashes.
Many of the incidents have featured widespread retaliatory violence against Muslim communities in response to accusations of seemingly isolated criminal acts.
In the latest clash, the official said the suspect allegedly approached a 25-year-old woman, "grabbed her hand and attempted to rape her".
Radical Buddhist monk Wirathu, whose anti-Muslim and nationalist speeches have been accused of stoking the unrest, posted a message about the incident on his Facebook page.
Using term "kalar" -- a highly derogatory word -- he blamed Muslims in general for the unrest.
"Kalars are troublemakers. When a kalar is there, the problem will be there. If every time kalar made trouble and people response in violent ways, both Buddhists and Buddhism will be harmed," he said.
Two outbreaks of conflict in the western state of Rakhine in June and October last year left around 200 people dead, mainly Rohingya Muslims who are seen by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
In March dozens of people were killed in sectarian strife in the central town of Meiktila, and thousands of homes were set ablaze.
The UN's rights envoy on Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, last week slammed the government for allowing an angry crowd to surround his car and beat on the windows during a visit to Meiktila.
He said the incident gave him an "insight into the fear residents would have felt when being chased down by violent mobs". Myanmar has said the envoy was not in danger.