Myanmar President Thein Sein lamented Wednesday that unending deadly riots in troubled Rakhine state are hindering its recovery from a spate of communal violence that began last year, calling on Buddhists and Muslims to sink their differences and prevent further bloodshed.
Thein Sein spoke to community leaders in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe as authorities there raised the death toll in the latest anti-Muslim clashes in the state this week to five.
On his first visit to Rakhine state since taking office in 2011, Thein Sein called on government officials and staff to work closer with Buddhist and Muslim communities in the region in a bid to end racial conflict and ensure that past mistakes are not repeated.
“It is important not to have more riots while we are working very hard to recover the losses we had because of previous incidents,” Thein Sein said.
“The Rakhine state government needs to cooperate with the people to avoid more conflict by learning from the lessons of previous riots.”
Thein Sein urged ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims to live together peacefully during the meeting, which also included community leaders from both sides in Sittwe, as well as from other violence-afflicted Rakhine towns such as Myauk-U, Kyauktaw, and Maungdaw.
Several bouts of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar have killed at least 45 people this year. Clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists that rocked Rakhine state last year left more than 200 dead and 140,000 displaced.
Authorities in the region confirmed Wednesday that at least five Muslims were killed when Buddhists rioted in Rakhine’s Thandwe township on Tuesday, revising the number up from one dead, according to reports a day earlier.
Rights groups have expressed concern that sectarian strife could dampen Thein Sein's reform program, which has earned praise across the globe and resulted in the lifting of long-running international sanctions imposed during the previous military junta rule.
Shwe Hla, a Muslim leader from Sittwe who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said that his community would work towards reconciliation for the good of the country.
“I told the president that we were born and grew up in this country,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We won’t betray our country and we want to protect it. We agree with today’s speech.”
Rakhine state government spokesman Win Mying said following the meeting that Thein Sein would travel to Kyaukpyu and Thandwe to hold discussions with leaders from both the Rakhine and Muslim communities on how to avoid further clashes between their groups.
Rakhine state Chief Minister Hla Maung Tin on Wednesday urged Thein Sein to establish a group that could help to build reconciliation between the region’s Buddhist and Muslim communities.
But he also called on the president to investigate the citizenship claims of Muslim Rohingya residents of Rakhine state, saying that their current non-citizen status was exacerbating tensions in the region.
“The Rakhine people want the state government to work on investigating Bengalis for their citizenship according to 1982 citizenship law,” he said, using a term for Rohingyas in Myanmar which suggests they have illegally emigrated from neighboring Bangladesh.
“If we find they are eligible to become Myanmar citizens after the investigation, we must let them. But if not, we must deal with them according to the law.”
Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law only recognizes those families which had settled in the country before independence from Britain in 1948, but many of the 800,000 Rohingyas who live in Rakhine state say they have lived there for generations.
The majority of Rohingyas, according to rights groups, have been denied citizenship as they are considered by most in Myanmar and the government to be illegal immigrants, preventing them access to many basic rights in the country.
The U.N. has referred to the group as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Tuesday’s violence stemmed from an argument over the weekend between a Rakhine Buddhist and a local Kaman Muslim—an officially recognized minority in Myanmar—over a parking space for a motorcycle in Thandwe, triggering arson attacks against property owned by Muslims.
Agence France-Presse quoted an anonymous police officer who confirmed Wednesday that at least five Muslims were killed in yesterday’s clashes, including a 94-year-old woman who was stabbed to death.
“The death toll rose to five—four men and a woman,” the police officer told AFP, adding that all of them had died during Tuesday’s violence, which saw more than 50 houses, a mosque, and school burned down as 800 Buddhist rioters armed with knives and sticks went on a rampage in Thandwe’s Pauktaw and Thabyuchine villages.
Four Rakhine Buddhists were injured in the clashes and a fifth was missing, police said.
Thaung Shwe, a Rakhine Buddhist man who was injured in the riots and was receiving treatment at Thandwe Hospital, told RFA that he and his friends had been attacked by Muslims shortly after arriving in Pauktaw.
“We went to Thandwe around 3:00 p.m. by motorbike [Tuesday]. When we got to [Pauktaw], they [the Muslims] came out from the villages and attacked us. We had to run for our lives,” he said.
“We had six people and two motorbikes. Four of us were injured and two are missing.”
The U.S. Embassy in Yangon issued a statement Wednesday “strongly condemn[ing]” the violence and urging the authorities to “thoroughly investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the violence.”
Win Naing, Thandwe chairman of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, confirmed that the situation in the area had nearly returned to normal and that members of the military had been deployed to help police maintain calm.
“Some businesses are running today in [Thandwe], but the children can’t go to school as the schools are all closed,” he said.
He said authorities were enforcing a strict curfew between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. in the area.
Residents said that many of the families that had fled the violence and were hiding in neighboring villages had returned home, and that those who lost their homes in the riots had been placed in a refugee camp in nearby Linthe village.
On Wednesday, Rakhine state government employees delivered aid to residents of the three villages who lost their homes in the violence.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Sai Tun Aung Lwin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.