LASHIO, Myanmar — It was a terrifying sight: hundreds of angry, armed men on motorcycles advancing up a dusty street with no one to stop them.
Shouting, clutching machetes and iron pipes and long bamboo poles, they thrust their fists repeatedly into the air.
The object of their rage: Myanmar’s embattled minority Muslim community.
City residents backed away as the Buddhist mob passed. Worried business owners turned away customers and retreated indoors. And three armed soldiers on a corner watched, doing nothing despite an emergency government ordinance banning groups of more than five from gathering.
Within a few hours on Wednesday, at least one person was dead and four injured as this region of Myanmar became the latest to fall prey to the country’s swelling tide of anti-Muslim unrest.
‘I couldn’t look. We were terrified.’
The violence over the past two days in Lashio is casting fresh doubt over whether President Thein Sein’s government can or will act to contain the racial and religious intolerance plaguing a deeply fractured nation still struggling to emerge from half a century of military rule.
Muslims have been the main victims of the violence since it began in western Rakhine state last year, but so far most trials have involved prosecutions of Muslims, not members of the Buddhist majority.
The rioting in Lashio started Tuesday after reports that a Muslim man had splashed gasoline on a Buddhist woman and set her on fire. The man was arrested. The woman was hospitalized with burns on her chest, back, and hands.
Mobs took revenge by burning down several Muslim shops and a mosque, along with an Islamic orphanage, said resident Min Thein by telephone.
When one group of thugs arrived at a Muslim-owned movie theater, they hurled rocks over the gate, smashing windows. They then broke inside and ransacked the cinema.
Ma Wal, a 48-year-old Buddhist shopkeeper across the street, said she saw the crowd arrive. They had knives and stones, and came in two waves.
‘‘I couldn’t look,’’ she said, recounting how she shut the wooden doors of her shop. ‘‘We were terrified.’’
A couple hours later, the mobs were gone and two army trucks and a small contingent of soldiers guarded the villa.
The government, which came to power in 2011 promising a new era of democratic rule, appealed for calm.
‘‘Damaging religious buildings and creating religious riots is inappropriate for the democratic society we are trying to create,’’ presidential spokesman Ye Htut said on his Facebook page. ‘‘Any criminal act will be dealt with according to the law,’’ he said.
National police said nine people were arrested for involvement in the two days of violence, but didn’t say if they were Buddhists or Muslims.
This month, authorities in two areas of Rakhine announced a regulation limiting Muslim families to two children.
The policy drew sharp criticism from Muslim leaders, rights groups, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.