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Myanmar Scrambles to Stem Ethnic Violence

Published: 10/06/2012 08:18:29 PM GMT
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NAYPYIDAW - Amid hostile sentiments against the Muslim minority, Myanmar announced a state of emergency in a western state on Sunday, June 10, following deadly sectarian clashes between Muslims and Buddhists. If both sides (more)

NAYPYIDAW - Amid hostile sentiments against the Muslim minority, Myanmar announced a state of emergency in a western state on Sunday, June 10, following deadly sectarian clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.

"If both sides kill each other in hatred and revenge, putting anarchy before everything, the violence is in danger of spreading outside Rakhine State," President Thein Sein said in an address cited by Agence France-Presse (AFP).

At least 17 people have been killed in mutual attacks between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state this month.

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The violence started after Buddhists attacked a bus carrying Muslim passengers last week, leaving at least nine people dead.

The attack followed the rape and murder of a woman in the state, which borders Bangladesh, for which Buddhists blame Muslims.

The violence escalated on Friday and Saturday, leaving at least seven people dead and hundreds of homes burnt.

Myanmar's President put the unrest down to "grievances, hatred and revenge based on religion and nationality".

"I would like everyone to take special care because of the damage that could be done to the peace, stability, democratic process and development of our country during its period of transformation, if the unrest spreads."

The violence has aroused hostile feelings against the Muslim minority in the country.

The website of Eleven Media Group, publisher of one of Myanmar's leading weekly newspapers, displayed a string of hateful comments about Muslims from readers.

“Terrorist is terrorist,” wrote one reader who signed in as Maungpho, according to The New York Times.

“Just kill them.”

Muslims make up nearly five percent of Myanmar's more than 53 million population.

The largest group of Myanmar Muslims is the ethnic-Bengali minority, generally known as the Rohingyas, who mainly live in the western state of Rakhine.

Less numbered are the Indian-descended Muslims who live in Yangon and ethnic-Chinese Muslims, known as the Panthay.

“We have to calm down and find an intellectual solution to the problem,” said U Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner who is helping lead efforts to ease religious tensions in Myanmar.

Persecuted Minority

But analysts rule out that the sectarian violence will escalate to engulf the whole country.

“It's not likely that this will spread,” U Tin Maung Thann, the president of a research organization in Yangon who is helping lead the government's peace talks with other ethnic groups, told The New York Times.

“The Muslim community within Burma proper have long experience living with the Buddhist majority.”

One of the main sources of religious tension in Myanmar is the issue of ethnic-Bengali Muslims, generally known as the Rohingyas.

Ko Ko Gyi, who spent 18 years in prison for opposing the previous military government, said Rohingya were not one of the country's accepted nationalities and that the “international community” must find a solution to the problem of their statelessness.

“This is a question of national sovereignty,” he told The New York Times.

“Anybody who wants Myanmar citizenship will have to learn one of Myanmar's national languages and learn about our culture.”

Described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, Rohingyas are not allowed to own land.

Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship rights since an amendment to the citizenship laws in 1982 and are treated as illegal immigrants in their own home.

They suffer frequent food shortages and they are technically restricted from travel outside of Rakhine.

Every year, thousands of minority Muslim Rohingyas flee Myanmar in wooden boats, embarking on a hazardous journey to Thailand or Malaysia in search of a better life.

While some find work as illegal laborers, others are arrested, detained and "repatriated" to a military-ruled country that washed its hands of them decades ago.

Rohingyas say they are deprived of free movement, education and employment in their homeland.They are not recognized as an ethnic minority by Myanmar and say they suffer human rights abuses at the hands of government officials.

Reproduced with permission from