Thein Sein talks tough on violence
Senseless, irrational, reactionary and extremist behaviour threatens Myanmar’s reforms and transition to democracy, President Thein Sein has warned in a TV message.
The caution – and a pledge to ensure the basic rights of Muslims in violence-torn Rakhine state – came in the wake of waves of anti-Muslim violence in the western state from June last year.
The President, speaking in Burmese yesterday evening, said: “We are still at a sensitive stage in the reform process where there is little room for error; as such, senseless, irrational, reactionary and extremist behaviour and action by some of our citizens may lead to the failure of the reform process itself.”
He added: “I would like to seriously caution you that we, as citizens, must refrain from doing anything that will jeopardise our transition to a peaceful, democratic nation.”
The focus of his address was the Rakhine Commission report, released on April 29, on the sectarian violence that has ravaged the state, displacing well over 100,000 minority Rohingya Muslims – seen as illegal Bengali immigrants – after their neighbourhoods were burned to the ground.
Buddhist Rakhines also suffered in the tit-for-tat violence. But, driven by Buddhist supremacist groups and tapping on a vein of anti-Muslim prejudice in a Buddhist-majority country, the violence morphed into generalised anti-Muslim action this year, with attacks on local Muslims in central Myanmar in March and again last week.
The President pledged “genuine and decisive leadership in resolving the conflict in Rakhine state in ways that will ensure national security, promote rule of law and protect human rights”.
In a clear statement on the legacy of over four decades of military rule, he said one of the lessons from the violence was that “defective policies adopted by previous governments have led to human rights violations within our society”.
But the 67-year-old, a soft-spoken former top general who has won accolades in Myanmar and abroad for promoting democratic and market reforms, challenged the view that the violence in Rakhine was anti-Muslim.
He said: “Failure to pay sufficient attention to the real and perceived root causes of the conflict – ranging from the explosive birth rate, the long-shared border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, negative colonial legacy, the economic backwardness in both the Rakhine and Muslim communities – and misportrayal of the conflict in Rakhine state as religious violence between Rakhine and Muslims have made it more difficult to resolve the problems.”
He also said violence in Meiktila and Oakkan – central Myanmar townships which have seen attacks on Muslims by Buddhist mobs – had been misportrayed as religious.
A Yangon-based diplomat said: “There is some truth that it is not religious violence, that there are elements trying to create instability and a role for the army in restoring order.”
The President warned that free speech should not be abused to fan conflict between different religious communities. Urging citizens to “stand up against hatred”, he said: “Only when there is tolerance and mutual respect, will it be possible to co-exist peacefully.”
He said: “I have instructed all security forces to perform the duties entrusted to them without any bias and in accordance with law. Anyone who breaks the law and carries out violence will be prosecuted in accordance with the law in a transparent and accountable manner.”
The reference was a recognition that security forces had not been blameless or impartial, said Yangon-based independent Myanmar analyst Richard Horsey.
While implementation remained the key, the speech was honest and captured the complexity and sensitivity of the issues, he said.
The diplomat said the speech would assuage the fear that has spread among Muslim communities, which in many places have put up their own barricades and mounted citizens’ patrols.
“Thus far the President has appeared a bit weak in terms of security; in this speech he is cracking the whip,” the diplomat said.