Myanmar President Thein Sein on Tuesday cautioned the local media against carrying reports that could stoke religious violence in the country, threatening to roll back recent press freedoms if they are deemed to threaten national security.
He issued the warning in a radio address nearly a week after social media reports that two Muslim men had raped a Buddhist woman sparked anti-Muslim riots in Myanmar’s second-largest city Mandalay, leaving two people dead and more than a dozen injured.
“We now have attained freedom of speech because of political reform which is crucial in the [democratic] transition process and we have now become a nation with one of the highest levels of press freedom in Southeast Asia,” the state-owned Mirror newspaper quoted him as saying.
But he cautioned that if the media used its newfound freedom to drive a wedge between the country’s religious groups, the government would move to curb its influence.
“However, if media freedom threatens national security instead of helping the nation, I want to warn all that we will take effective action under existing laws,” he said.
Reports of the rape were published online and reposted by nationalist monk Wirathu hours before riots erupted in Mandalay on July 2, leaving a Buddhist and a Muslim dead, and more than 20 people injured in the latest religious violence to hit the nation.
Some 280 have been killed and tens of thousands left homeless—mostly Muslims— since communal clashes erupted in the country in 2012 after decades of harsh military rule, according to rights groups.
In Tuesday’s radio address, Thein Sein pledged to investigate the recent violence and “take swift legal action against those participating in and promoting violence.”
“It is clear that the events in Mandalay are the intentional and deliberate acts of a group or organization. I urge all citizens to denounce incitements, violence, and threats and to work together with the government,” he said.
Since the outbreak of the clashes, authorities in Mandalay have asked residents to remain in their homes for curfew between 5 p.m. and 9 a.m. in all townships and prohibited people from gathering in groups of more than five during the restricted hours.
Sixteen people have been arrested on “various charges” related to the riots and hundreds have been charged for breaking the rules of the curfew, according to police, while some 1,000 members of the security forces, including patrol guards, have been deployed to protect area residents.
Authorities are also searching for the two Muslim owners of a local teashop who were accused in the online reports of having raped a Buddhist woman.
Lack of response
But speaking to RFA’s Myanmar Service on Tuesday, 88 Generation leader Min Ko Naing questioned why authorities had not yet arrested those responsible for the Mandalay violence.
“People are surprised because they have not been arrested yet—even kids know that a group has intentionally provoked this problem,” he said, without identifying the group.
“People are questioning why the authorities didn’t control it in time. They want to be shown an arrest of the people who caused the problems.”
Critics have also struck out at authorities for doing little to quell the unrest, with Muslims accusing police of standing by during the latest incident on Friday, when a Buddhist mob armed with sticks and metal pipes set fire to a religious school and other buildings.
Min Ko Naing warned against the spread of hate within communities.
“We need to know how to protect against this. Security organizations, local community leaders, civil society groups, and the people should work together to prevent these problems,” he said.
“The people also need to be more conscious [that others are trying to manipulate them].”
Agence France-Presse reported that netizens were unable to access Facebook on Thursday and Friday nights, amid speculation that the government may have shut down the site to stem the spread of hate content, but access had returned to normal as of Saturday.
Meanwhile, three editors in Yangon were taken in by authorities for questioning Tuesday after a their journal published a front page article claiming that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic political forces had been selected by the public to serve as Myanmar’s interim leaders, according to one of the paper’s reporters.
Thein Min Aung, a senior journalist at the Bi-Noonday Sun weekly news journal, told RFA that members of the Special Branch police came to the paper’s office around noon to bring in the first editor for questioning and confiscate equipment.
“One of the three editors was taken at around 12:00 p.m. to the Special Branch office. Another one, Ko Win Tin was taken at around 2:00 p.m. and a third, named Aung Thant, at 4:00 p.m.,” he said.
“[The police] said that they wanted to question the editors about news in our journal that was published on Monday … They took some documents, three computers and cable wires.”
The Irrawaddy online journal quoted Thein Min Aung as saying that Naig Sai Aung was the third editor taken in for questioning.
Thein Min Aung told RFA that the article about the interim government had been published in the weekly’s Monday edition and was based on a statement by the Myanmar Democracy Continuous Force (MDCF), a political activist group.
“We wrote the news according to the MCDF’s statement after asking a member of the organization,” he said.
Thein Min Aung said that the Sun would release a statement about the incident and consult with officials from other news organizations to decide how to proceed.
Local media reported Tuesday that the MCDF had distributed the statement to passersby on July 7 in front of Yangon City Hall, while marking the anniversary of a 1962 massacre at Yangon University.
The statement accused Thein Sein’s administration of ignoring unemployment, labor and farmer rights, and judicial reform, and said that “the people” had voted for an interim government to replace it.
State-run media had announced earlier on Tuesday that the government was preparing to take action against the Sun because its article “may cause misunderstanding among the readers, defames the government, undermines the stability of the state, and damages public interests.”
It said that if an unofficial election was found to have taken place to vote on the formation of an interim government, action would be taken in accordance with existing laws.
Reforms under Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, which took power in 2011, have included ending prepublication censorship.
But activists have accused the government of backsliding on press reforms with the introduction of vague media laws and the prosecution of several local journalists.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei and San Maw Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.