Burmese President Thein Sein has assured minority Muslims rattled by a spate of attacks by Buddhist-led mobs that their fundamental rights will be protected.
In a speech on state television, the reformist leader called for "peaceful coexistence" and "tolerance" among all communities in the mainly Buddhist country.
"Our government will take the most practical ways to protect the basic rights of Muslims who have been here for a long time," Thein Sein said as he referred to Rakhine state, where deadly clashes between Muslim Rohingyas and ethnic Buddhist Rakhines occurred twice last year.
In the same breath, he said, the government "will never ignore the feelings and demands of the Rakhines."
Thein Sein's assurance came two weeks after the latest clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in Oakkan—a town located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Rangoon—touched off after a Muslim woman bumped into a novice Buddhist monk, knocking over his alms bowl.
The clashes which erupted on April 30 left one dead and nearly a dozen injured before order was restored by police firing warning shots over the heads of mobs. Two mosques were partially destroyed and dozens of homes and shops were burnt to the ground.
A month earlier, at least 43 people were reported dead and thousands, mostly Muslims, driven from their homes and businesses after violence broke out in the central city of Meikhtila and spread to other areas north of Rangoon.
And last year, clashes in Rakhine state in June and October left at least 180 dead and tens of thousands homeless—mostly Rohingyas.
Thein Sein said his government would make efforts to ensure that "everyone lives together peacefully" in Rakhine state but added that "historical lessons" cannot be ignored.
He said the conflict in Rakhine was complex and fueled by social and economic problems faced by both the Rohingyas and Rakhines.
It had its roots in a "population crisis" in a neighboring country, he said, obviously referring to Bangladesh. He did not elaborate.
Most Burmese and the government consider the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in Rakhine state to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Most of them have been denied citizenship, and the U.N. describes these stateless people as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
Thein Sein, whose nominally civilian government took power in March 2011, freeing the country from decades of military misrule, said he was implementing democratic reforms for the interest of all Burmese and their freedom.
"Every citizen is allowed to practice whichever religion he chooses and everyone has to respect each other," he said. "And the government will protect the religious freedom of all."
He cautioned against "extremism," saying abuse of any rights prevailing under current democratic reforms could derail the reforms crucial for the country's progress.
Thein Sein said he had ordered security forces to adhere to the rule of law and carry out their duties "without any bias" in Rakhine and that he had also allowed foreign aid to be smoothly channeled into the state.
A long-awaited official report last month on the violence in Rakhine recommended that security forces be doubled in the area and given better resources, while navy patrols should be bolstered and a maritime police force established to deter immigrants arriving by boat.
The report also recommended that more aid be channeled to help Rohingyas displaced in the clashes and called for a process to examine their citizenship status, though it did not hint at any major reforms that would embrace them as citizens.
The government-appointed commission’s recommendations followed a report from U.S.-based Human Rights Watch accusing security forces of complicity in “ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya—a claim the government denies.
Reported by RFA's Burmese Service. Translated by Maung Maung Nyo. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.