(Rakhine Buddhist monks pray for peace at the Sule pagoda in central Yangon June 12, 2012. REUTERS/Minzayar)

Homes burned, gunshots rang out and witnesses reported many dead as sectarian violence raged for a fifth day between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in northwest Myanmar on Tuesday, threatening the country’s nascent democracy.

Security forces struggled to stem the worst communal violence since Myanmar’s reformist government replaced an oppressive junta last year and vowed to forge unity in one of Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries. Hundreds of Rohingyas have been turned away by authorities in neighbouring Bangladesh after attempting to flee the fighting in boats, say officials and witnesses.

The fighting in Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, has prompting President Thein Sein to declare a state of emergency, impose dawn-to-dusk curfews and warn that “vengeance and anarchy” could jeopardise the country’s fledgling transition to democracy after nearly 50 years of army rule.

“Almost all of the shops have closed. We only have a little bit to eat because the market is also closed,” said a worker at a hotel in the centre of Sittwe.