UNITED NATIONS — Burma will not allow those eager to incite ethnic and religious violence to exploit the Southeast Asian country’s newfound openness as it struggles along the path to democracy, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin said on Monday.
The comments came as terrified Muslims hid in their homes in the northwest after armed police dispersed a Buddhist mob that torched houses and surrounded a mosque—the latest outbreak of sectarian tension.
“There are always people who wish to rock the boat,” Lwin told the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York. “We will not let anyone take advantage of political openness to instigate violence among different ethnic or religious communities.”
Clashes between majority Buddhists and Muslims in Burma have killed at least 237 people and left more than 150,000 homeless since June 2012.
The violence threatens to undermine political and economic reforms launched in the two years since a quasi-civilian government replaced a military junta.
“Our reform process is still at a nascent and sensitive stage where there is little room for error,” Lwin said. “With this in mind the President [Thein Sein] has publicly emphasized the need for everyone to refrain from doing anything that could jeopardize Myanmar’s peaceful transition.”
In April, the government said 192 people were killed in June and October 2012 clashes between ethnic Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, most of whom Burma regards as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite roots going back generations.
The United Nations has described the Rohingya as “virtually friendless.”
Clashes between Rohingya and Arakans in June 2012 led to unrest elsewhere in the country, where other groups of Muslims have been targeted, including Kamans, who are of different ethnicity from Rohingyas. An estimated 5 percent of Burma’s population of about 60 million is Muslim.
Lwin also said that the government has made “tangible progress in our efforts toward national reconciliation.”
“The government’s peace overtures have led to reaching ceasefire agreements with all armed groups for the first time in 60 years,” he told 193-nation General Assembly. “We are hopeful that we will be able to celebrate the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement in Naypyidaw very soon.”
Contrary to Lwin’s assertion, the government has not yet signed a ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of Burma’s largest ethnic armed rebel groups, though peace negotiations are ongoing.
Lwin said a new round of political dialogue should commence soon to reach a “comprehensive and lasting peace agreement.”
“We have no illusion that the next step will be an easy one,” Lwin said. “But we are determined to pursue this path for the sake of our people as they deserve it for so long.”
He reiterated the government’s goal of releasing more prisoners from jail. “We are speedily working through a screening mechanism to ensure that no prisoner of conscience remains behind bars by the end of the year,” Lwin said.
With additional reporting from The Irrawaddy in Rangoon.