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Burma’s president on Monday pledged to uphold the “fundamental rights” of Muslims in strife-torn Arakan state, in the wake of deadly religious unrest that has spread across the country.
In a speech to the nation following the release last week of an official report into last year’s violence in western Arakan that killed around 200 people, Thein Sein said the country should aim for “peaceful coexistence”.
“Regarding Rakhine [Arakan], our government will take responsibility for upholding Muslims’ fundamental rights,” he said, adding that ethnic Rakhines, who are mainly Buddhist, “will not be neglected”.
Arakan state remains deeply divided following major eruptions of unrest in June and October that saw mobs rampage through villages and torch thousands of homes, displacing 140,000 mainly Rohingya Muslims.
Waves of anti-Muslim unrest have spread across the country this year. Buddhist monks have been linked to some incidents, while security forces have been accused of standing by while mosques and homes were attacked.
Thein Sein said he accepted that “there were human rights violations… because of the policies that we used formerly”, without elaborating on which measures he was referring to.
He pledged to use his authority “to make sure that security forces fully implement measures to restore peace and the rule of law”.
Attacks against Muslims — who make up an estimated four percent of Burma’s population — have exposed deep fractures in the formerly junta-run country and cast a shadow over reforms under a quasi-civilian regime that took power two years ago.
At least 43 people were killed and thousands left homeless in March after a flare-up apparently triggered by a quarrel in a gold shop in the central town of Meikhtila.
A renewed bout of anti-Muslim unrest last week saw one killed and mosques and homes destroyed in Oakkan, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Yangon, as the unrest spread closer to the country’s main city.
The Arakan commission called for increased aid in Arakan, where tens of thousands of Rohingya are trapped in squalid camps amid fears of a deepening humanitarian crisis as the monsoon season approaches.
But the report also recommended maintaining the segregation of the two communities while tensions remain.
Human Rights Watch, which has claimed the authorities were involved in ethnic cleansing in Arakan, said the report’s call to double troop numbers there was a “potential disaster” without proper oversight.
Rohingya — considered by the United Nations to be one of the world’s most persecuted minorities — have been rendered effectively stateless in Burma with few rights and scant access to public services.