Myanmar has no choice but to accept foreign aid for Muslims hit by recent sectarian violence or it will face an international backlash, President Thein Sein said Sunday.
His comments follow a series of protests by Buddhists in Myanmar against efforts by a world Islamic body to help Muslims affected by the violence in the western state of Rakhine.
Dozens were killed in the Buddhist-Muslim clashes and tens of thousands displaced on both sides.
“We need humanitarian assistance. If we reject the humanitarian assistance, the international community will not accept us,” Thein Sein told reporters in his first domestic press conference since taking office 18 months ago.
“We have to feed the people. It costs $10,000 a day,” he said of the Rakhine camps.
“Our government cannot afford it. We are not in a situation to feed the people in the camps with the help of ordinary citizens so we have to accept humanitarian assistance from the international community. If we do not accept the humanitarian assistance they will say we are not human.”
More than 50,000 Muslims, mainly Rohingya, are housed in several camps in Rakhine and unable to go home.
Myanmar’s 800,000 Rohingya, described by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, are seen by the government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Thein Sein has blocked an attempt by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to open an office in Myanmar to help the displaced, after thousands of monks held protests in two major cities last week.
But he indicated that his reformist government would continue to accept humanitarian aid from Muslim countries.
“Regarding the OIC, I do not differentiate between religions or ethnicities. They want to give humanitarian assistance and also they have given some,” Thein Sein told the news conference.
Members of the 57-member OIC toured Rakhine last month after accusations from rights groups that security forces opened fire on Rohingya during the unrest. The allegations prompted concern across the Islamic world.
Since taking office in March 2011, Thein Sein has overseen dramatic changes such as the release of political prisoners, the parliamentary debut of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ceasefire pacts with ethnic rebels.
The 67-year-old, who has a heart condition and uses a pacemaker, offered a fresh hint on Sunday that he might seek a second term, as his party looks ahead to elections in 2015 seen as a key test of the regime’s reformist credentials.
“So far I have decided to serve one term because of my age and my health. But I will consider (serving a second term) if needed according to the country’s situation and the people’s desire,” he said.