RANGOON—President Thein Sein blamed the ongoing anti-Muslim riots that have rocked central Burma on “political opportunists and religious extremists” on Thursday, and warned that he “will not hesitate to use force” to quell the unrest.
In a 10-minute address broadcast on state-run television at 6 pm Thursday, Thein Sein said he would decisively deal with the mob violence that has affected Muslim neighborhoods in at least 11 townships in Mandalay and Pegu divisions.
“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,” he warned.
The violence erupted on March 20 in Meikhtila Township, where 12,000 residents were displaced and 40 people were killed. It first appeared that Buddhist and Muslim communities had clashed, but the President said outside “instigators” were responsible for the communal violence.
“I would like to warn all political opportunists and religious extremists who try to exploit the noble teachings of these religions and have tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths for their own self-interest: their efforts will not be tolerated,” the president said.
“We will take all necessary and effective action to stop their operations in accordance with our Constitution and our existing laws. All perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” the 67-year-old reformist leader said.
“My fellow citizens, I want to urge you to cooperate with each other on the basis of compassion, tolerance, open-mindedness and empathy,” he said, adding that security forces should “perform their duties decisively, bravely and within the constraints of the Constitution and by-laws.”
Like the president, Burmese activists and Muslim leaders have said that the violence appears to be orchestrated. Some have speculated that hardliners within the military and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development party were behind the unrest, in an attempt to derail Thein Sein’s reform agenda.
Since taking office in April 2011, the president has pushed through a raft of political and socioeconomic reforms. He has publicly committed himself to transforming Burma from an isolated military regime to a rights-respecting democracy.
His government’s actions in dealing with the communal violence so far have, however, been widely criticized.
On Thursday, respected activist group the 88 Generation Students said the government security forces’ performance in the face of the escalating anti-Muslim riots had been apathetic.
“The way we see it, they are just standing around and watching the riot situation calmly as if they are not able to do anything,” said Ko Ko Gyi, one the group’s leaders. “It is not a matter of the strength of the police force… the main factor is their protective ability and authority.”
Min Ko Naing, another 88 Generation leader, said he also believed that outside forces were inciting much of the communal violence that has affected central Burma.
“I have a strong suspicion that these violent situations were caused intentionally by highly trained persons,” he said at a press conference in Rangoon on Thursday. “We are very concerned about public security and the fledgling democracy of our country, and we must protect it firmly,” Min Ko Naing added.
The group said the government “has full responsibility to protect the public from occurring violence situations and to give help to the victims during their rehabilitation.”
Also on Thursday, leaders of Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Christian groups in Burma met at Rangoon’s YMCA building to make a joint public appeal for an end to the ongoing violence.
The event, which was attended by dozens of youth community activists and representatives of the religious groups, included a prayer ceremony for peace and harmony between Burma’s different communities.
In a speech, Buddhist monk Kolnyanna, from Rangoon’s Mingun Tawya Monastery, said, “We need to have a compassion for each other. “All religions should live in peace in this country.”
Haj. Aye Lwin, the chief convener of the Islamic Center of Myanmar, said the anti-Muslim attacks were being organized in order to undermine Thein Sein’s government. “The rioters are trying to derail the democratic reform process taking place presently in Burma,” he said.