Burmese President Thein Sein said that his government would use force if necessary to quell deadly religious rioting that started last week, as attacks on Muslims by Buddhist mobs continued in several towns.
In his first public comments on the violence, Thein Sein warned in a televised speech on Thursday that he would make all legal efforts to stop “political opportunists and religious extremists” trying to sow hatred between faiths.
Police announced on Thursday that 42 people have been killed, 37 religious buildings and 1,227 houses have been damaged or destroyed, and 68 arrests have been made in the three affected regions since the recent unrest started on Wednesday last week.
The violence began with rioting by Buddhists targeting minority Muslims in the central city of Meikhtila that drove about 12,000 people from their homes. It spread this week to several towns in the Bago region, about 160km north of the country’s biggest city, Yangon. One incident was reported near Naypyitaw, the capital.
Curfews and bans on public gatherings have been imposed in the affected areas, but state television reported that groups of people attacked houses, shops and religious buildings on Thursday in two towns in Bago. On Wednesday, it reported that security forces fired shots into the air to break up attacks, which residents said targeted Muslim properties.
“In general, I do not endorse the use of force to solve problems. However, I will not hesitate to use force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of the general public,” said Thein Sein, who took office in 2011 as part of an elected civilian government after almost five decades of repressive military rule.
By instituting democratic changes and economic liberalization, he has built a reputation as a reformer and restored relations with Western nations that had shunned the previous military regime for its poor human rights record.
“We must expect these conflicts and difficulties to arise during our period of democratic transition,” he said in a 10-minute speech. “As we rebuild our society, we must rise above 60 years of historical bitterness, confrontational approaches and a zero-sum attitude in solving our differences.”
Myanmar became independent from Britain in 1948, but suffered from instability because of tensions between various ethnic minorities.
Occasional isolated violence involving majority Buddhists and minority Muslims has occurred for decades, even under the authoritarian military governments that ruled the country from 1962 to 2011. However, tensions have heightened since last year when hundreds of people were killed and more than 100,000 made homeless in violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, welcomed Thein Sein’s public call for the violence to stop, but said authorities “need to do much more” to keep the violence from spreading and undermining the reform process.
“The government has simply not done enough to address the spread of discrimination and prejudice against Muslim communities,” Quintana said in a statement.
He also called on the government to look into allegations that soldiers and police stood by “while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organized ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs.”
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland praised Thein Sein’s call for tolerance and religious pluralism, saying they were messages that his country needed to hear. She also noted the Myanmar leader said force would only be used as a last resort.