Burma’s President Thein Sein acknowledged Friday that the “absence of rule of law” caused ethnic clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state, saying he would address the issue through consultations with religious leaders.
His comments, made at a meeting with Buddhist and Muslim leaders, came as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi labeled the conflict a “huge international tragedy,” but said she would remain neutral on the issue in a bid to promote reconciliation in the region.
“Problems in Rakhine state arose because of the absence of rule of law,” Thein Sein told a group of Islamic leaders and officials from the Sangha Maha Nayaka—a government-appointed body of high-ranking monks that oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy in Burma.
“Anger over criminal acts and not adhering to the rule of law resulted in the spread of violence,” he said of clashes in June and October that left around 180 dead and 110,000 displaced, according to official figures.
Thein Sein added that the government is trying to solve the conflict in the region “according to law” and invited participants in the meeting to give suggestions on how to proceed.
Clashes broke out in Rakhine state in June following allegations that a gang of Muslim Rohingya men had raped a Rakhine Buddhist woman. Rakhines attacked the Rohingyas in response, setting off clashes between both sides in which thousands of homes were torched.
A second round of clashes occurred late last month, leaving around 90 dead, some 140 wounded, more than 5,000 houses burned down and about 32,000 people homeless.
Around 75,000 people remain in refugee camps since the violence began in June and a curfew is still in place in some areas.
Rights group say the Rohingyas bore the brunt of the June and latest violence.
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke out against the violence during her visit this week to India, saying it was a "huge international tragedy" and echoing Thein Sein’s statement that rule of law must be reestablished in Rakhine state to help resolve the conflict.
The Nobel peace laureate said that she had not taken sides in the conflict, to the chagrin of rights organizations and the international community, in order to promote reconciliation in Rakhine state, where 800,000 Rohingyas live as a minority and are regarded as immigrants from Bangladesh, even though their forefathers came to the country generations ago.
"Don't forget that violence has been committed by both sides, this is why I prefer not to take sides and also I want to work towards reconciliation," she told an Indian news channel.
She said that the porous border with Bangladesh was one of the contributing factors to ethnic tension in the region and needed to be better controlled.
“Is there a lot of illegal crossing of the border [with Bangladesh] still going on? We have got to put a stop to it otherwise there will never be an end to the problem,” she said.
"Bangladesh will say all these people have come from Burma and the Burmese say all these people have come over from Bangladesh."
Burma's stateless Rohingyas are considered by the United Nations as among the world's most persecuted minorities.
"Most people seem to think there is only one country involved in this border issue,” she said.
“There are two countries. There is Bangladesh on one side and Burma on the other and the security of the border surely is the responsibility of both countries."
‘Time to heal’
In a separate interview, Aung San Suu Kyi told India’s CNN-IBN television news that corruption and lack of regulation at the border meant people had been “coming and going” too frequently over the past 10 years, causing both countries to “point fingers” at one another and setting the stage for cultural clashes.
“There must be rule of law [in Rakhine state], violence must come to a stop. But enough action was not taken and violence escalated and now it has got to a stage that the two communities hate each other and don't wish to live near one another. This is terrible,” she said.
“And that kind of communal hostility takes time to heal. So, we have to concentrate on law and order and make sure that everybody is secure. Until people are secured, they will not be prepared to talk to one another and work out a long term solution.”
When asked about reports that Burmese security forces were standing by and not intervening when the Rohingyas were being attacked, and in some cases had even fired on Rohingyas, Aung San Suu Kyi said that she had heard similar reports on both sides of the clashes.
She dismissed claims that the Rohingyas had been the target of a form of racial genocide by the Rakhines.
“I do not think we could say that ethnic cleansing is the issue here, I think it's prejudice,” she said.
“The whole situation was managed very badly so that both communities are highly suspicious of one another and while the Muslims on one hand feel that there is ethnic cleansing being carried out against them, the Buddhists on the other hand feel that they are going to be wiped out from their own land.”
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Thinn Thiri. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.