Religious leaders urge end to Myanmar communal clashes

Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders have called for calm in violence-hit central Myanmar and urged the government to step up security for both communities, state media said Sunday.

The outbreak of religious violence in the town of Meiktila has claimed at least 32 lives and displaced about 9,000 people, according to officials, leaving swathes of the town in ruin and prompting an army-enforced state of emergency.

The Interfaith Friendship Organisation called on the government "to lay effective security plans and provide security to people of the two communities".

The statement, signed by Buddhist and Muslim leaders and carried in the state-mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar, asked followers of different religions to obey the law and "maintain the community harmony with love and kindness".

The leaders are the first religious figures to speak out publicly since riots hit Meiktila, 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of the capital Naypyidaw, last Wednesday, leaving buildings torched and charred bodies in the streets.

The clashes are the latest sign of worsening tensions between Muslims and Buddhists and present a serious challenge for the quasi-civilian regime as it looks to reform the country after decades of iron-fisted military rule.

It is the worst communal violence since a wave of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the western state of Rakhine last year that left at least 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced.

Urging people from all communities to step back from violence, the Interfaith Friendship Organisation, which also includes Christian and Hindu community leaders, said the clashes were posing a threat to Myanmar's progress.

The state of emergency order, signed by President Thein Sein, is designed to enable the army to help restore order and is a significant move in a country trying to emerge from the legacy of junta rule, which ended two years ago.

The United Nations, US, Britain and rights groups have called for calm and dialogue between communities amid fears that the violence could spread.

Myanmar's Muslims -- largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent -- account for an estimated four percent of the population of roughly 60 million, although the country has not conducted a census in three decades.