Sectarian violence in the west of Myanmar could put the country’s transition to democracy in danger if it spread further, President Thein Sein said on Sunday, as state television announced a state of emergency in the affected area.
Thein Sein was speaking after three days of violence in the state of Rakhine between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya, people of South Asian descent who are not recognised as citizens either by Myanmar or neighbouring Bangladesh.
State television said the president had declared a state of emergency and military administration in Rakhine State in order to restore law and order as soon as possible.
Extra troops had already been flown to the area over the weekend after rampaging mobs had killed at least seven people. Overnight curfews are in force in some towns.
“If we put racial and religious issues at the forefront, if we put the never-ending hatred, desire for revenge and anarchic actions at the forefront, and if we continue to retaliate and terrorise and kill each other, there’s a danger that (the troubles) could multiply and move beyond Rakhine,” Thein Sein said in a hastily arranged televised address.
“If this happens, the general public should be aware that the country’s stability and peace, democratisation process and development, which are only in transition right now, could be severely affected and much would be lost.”
The president said the government would compensate those who had suffered losses and he asked people to be magnanimous and understanding. According to state media, at least 500 homes and other buildings have been torched during the mob violence.
“We are working with the religious groups, religious leaders, political parties, civil society organisations and village and town elders to resolve the problems,” he said.
The communal violence is the deadliest to hit Myanmar since Thein Sein’s reformist government replaced a military junta last year and vowed to forge unity in one of Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries.
The western region had been tense for days after reports of the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman that had been blamed on Muslims and the reprisal killing last Sunday of 10 Muslims.
The UN’s refugee agency estimates there are about 800,000 Rohingya in three districts of Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh and there have been frequent bouts of communal violence there.
Resentment of Rohingya runs deep among Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist, ethnic Burman majority. The government and many Burmese refuse even to recognise them as “Rohingya”, referring to them as “Bengalis”.