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Myanmar president promises to protect Muslims

Government will take 'all necessary actions'

  • John Zaw, Mandalay and Thomas Toe, Yangon
  • Myanmar
  • May 7, 2013
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President Thein Sein has promised to protect the rights of Muslims as concern has grown over spreading attacks against this religious minority in this predominantly Buddhist country.

In a national address on Monday, Myanmar’s reformist president focused on the violence which hit western Rakhine state, leaving more than 200 people dead and displacing more than 100,000.

“The government will take all necessary actions to ensure the basic human rights of Muslims in Rakhine state and to accommodate the needs and expectations of Rakhine people,” he said.

Thein Sein’s government has come under criticism from human rights groups and Muslims over inaction from the concerned authorities.

A police video shot during sectarian rioting in Meikhtila at the end of March showed security forces standing idle as Buddhist mobs looted Muslim homes and shops and attacked people.

Since then anti-Muslim attacks have spread to Okkan Township about 96 kms north of Myanmar’s largest city Yangon where one person was killed and 10 injured last week, and to restive Kachin state in the north close to China where there was also trouble a few days later.

“In order for religious freedom to prevail, there must be tolerance and mutual respect among the members of different faiths. Only then will it be possible to coexist peacefully,” said Thein Sein.

Last week, a government-appointed commission issued controversial recommendations including family planning for minority Mulsim Rohingyas in Rakhine state, a group it referred to as “Bengalis.” Many Myanmar Buddhists consider Rohingyas illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Thein Sein said that his government would “take all necessary measures to deter illegal immigration” in a speech which balanced the concerns of Muslims and rights groups with the sensibilities of Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population.

Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state in a report which detailed evidence of mass graves there.

Myo Win from the Muslims Association Network based in Yangon said that the government would have to go much further than Thein Sein’s speech to avoid further escalation of the religious violence Myanmar has witnessed over the past year.

He called on the government to guarantee the citizenship of Rohingyas and other groups by revising citizenship laws which date back to the recent era of military rule.

In Myanmar, the large number of ethnic groups and years of insurgency on the porous periphery of the country, combined with its colonial legacy as part of India, have left many without official citizenship documents, a factor which critics say has fueled anti-Muslim attacks.

“We want not only the Rohingyas but all ethnic groups who have lived in the country over the centuries to have the legitimate right to live in the country, and all those who are eligible for citizenship must receive the equal rights of citizenship,” said Myo Win.

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