Burma President Vows to Protect Muslim Rights

Burma’s President Thein Sein holds a televised address to the nation on March 28, 2013, in which he warned he would not hesitate to use force to end ongoing anti-Muslim riots. (Photo: President’s Office website)

RANGOON — Burma President Thein Sein, nearly one year after sectarian violence first exploded under his watch, vowed Monday his government would do everything it can to protect the rights of minority Muslims living in the predominantly Buddhist nation.

The promise came amid fears that the religious unrest, which has morphed into a campaign against the country’s Muslim community, could spread further after a new round of attacks last week saw several Muslim villages north of the main city Rangoon burned to the ground.

Thein Sein’s administration, which came to power in 2011 after half a century of military rule, has been heavily criticized for not doing enough to protect Muslims or stop the violence from spreading since it began with clashes between ethnic Arakan Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in the west last year.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused authorities—including Buddhist monks, local politicians, government officials, and state security forces—of fomenting an organized campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Muslims; the government has denied the charges. So far, hundreds of people have died and more than 135,000 people—almost all of them Muslims—have fled their homes.

In a speech broadcast on state television late Monday, Thein Sein vowed his “government will take all necessary action to ensure the basic human rights of Muslims in Rakhine [Arakan] State, and to accommodate the needs and expectations of the Rakhine people.”

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

During his speech, the Burma leader also announced he would implement the recommendations of a special government-appointed panel set up last year to investigate the causes of the conflict.

The panel—whose members included ethnic Arakan but no Rohingya—made myriad recommendations, including doubling the number of security forces in Arakan State and introducing family planning programs to stem population growth among Muslims.

The Rohingya living in Arakan State are widely seen as foreign intruders—illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh who are largely denied citizenship even though many of them have lived in Burma for generations.

Thein Sein said his administration will “take all necessary security measures to deter illegal immigration,” and “will deal with the citizenship-related issues,” though he gave no details on how.

He promised aid to strife-hit Arakan State and said his government would assist foreign aid organizations working in the country. But he said some international relief agencies operating there “may have worsened the situation” and should take into account “local sensitivities when planning activities.”

Local Buddhists have repeatedly accused foreign aid groups of bias in favor of the Rohingya. International aid agencies, meanwhile, have complained their work has been obstructed and their staff have been physically threatened by extremists; they acknowledge that much aid is directed at the Rohingya, but they argue that is simply because the vast majority of displaced are Rohingya.

Thein Sein, who has been praised by the West for making moves to transition to democratic rule, also said that although free speech is the essence of democracy, “some people abuse this right with speech intended to provoke, cause fear and spread hatred, thereby exacerbating the conflict between different religious communities.”

In recent months, a Buddhist campaign called “969,” which urges Buddhists to shop only at Buddhist stores and avoid marrying, hiring or selling their homes or land to Muslims, has spread rapidly across the nation. Human rights activists say it has helped fuel anti-Muslim violence.

7 Responses to Burma President Vows to Protect Muslim Rights

  1. The Burmese government should treat the Muslims and the Rohingyas exactly the same way they treat “illegal Chinese business immigrants” and the UWSA. No double-standards please. Citizenship should not be based on skin colour or bribery and corruption.

  2. No sorry, I can still see Than Shwe’s lips move when this ventriloquist’s dummy speaks.

  3. He says that because he is going to see Obama.

  4. Hello mr. president……How about illegal Chineses in burma? What are you going to do with them? Why don’t you just say something about illegal Chineses who are migrating into Burma illegally every day? Can you tell me what is Chinese population in Burma? I don’t really think that you have authority to stop these kinds of violence against minority groups. Now you and your government are under watch by the Muslim world. They are watching you and your government’s next actions against Muslim. They are waiting for the payback time, just like what had happened in the United States.

  5. Maung Kyaw Nu,Former political prisoner of conscience,

    This’s another bluffing speech to chit the Nation. How could General Thien Sein approve racist ,dawn grade and one sided report of so called Rakhine Commission? Just a few months ago he requested UNHCR Commissioner to take back all Rohingyas to third countries.His handling and remarks to Ehtnic Rohingyas fuels present humanitarian crisis. He must have to take full responsibility of genocides .We haven’t seen this kinds of mass graves,killing ,burning people alive ,rape etc during previous BSPP,SPDC and SLORCS times. His USDP govt exceed every genocidal records of nearly 50 years dictatorial rule .

  6. Too little too late.

  7. “The panel—whose members included ethnic Arakan but no Rohingya”

    Because no Rohingya ethnic in Burma. Only Burmese citizen can be appointed in the panel. In the panel, Burmese Muslims are appointed as member.

    I welcome about President U Thein Sein promised “he will always respect Rakhine peoples’ wishes and will not let down their feeling on illegal Muslim migrants problem in Rakhine state”.

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