Myanmar's progressive president Thein Sein has warned that his government is poised to use force to suppress sectarian clashes that have ravaged the central city of Meikhtila.

A mob of Buddhists, some led by monks, attacked a Muslim neighbourhood following a row in a Muslim gold shop. At least 40 people died in the violence and 12,000 were displaced from their homes. The unrest spread to several towns in the Bago region, about 160km north of Yangon.

The government deployed between 600 and 700 police officers. Local reports said that at least five mosques had been burned down since the violence started.

In a televised speech, Thein Sein warned that he would make all efforts to stop "political opportunists and religious extremists" trying to fan hatred between faiths.

"In general, I do not endorse the use of force to solve problems. However, I will not hesitate to use force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of the general public," said the president, who took office in 2011 as part of an elected civilian government after almost five decades of repressive military rule.

"We must expect these conflicts and difficulties to arise during our period of democratic transition," he said. "As we rebuild our society, we must rise above 60 years of historical bitterness, confrontational approaches and a zero-sum attitude in solving our differences."

He expressed sadness that a "simple private dispute led to a deadly riot" and accused "unruly instigators" of trying to spread trouble in other part of the country.

As revealed by IBTimes UK, clashes in the area might have been triggered by a controversial monk, who led numerous vocal campaigns against Muslims in Burma.

Saydaw Wirathu called for a national boycott of Muslim businesses in Myanmar in a video that emerged on YouTube.

The monk, who was arrested in 2003 for distributing anti-Muslim literature, urges Burmese people in the video: "Join the 969 Buddhist nationalist campaign.

"Do business or interact with only our kind: same race and same faith."