Myanmar alert to extremism threat

Myanmar alert to extremism threat
Protesters hold banners as they rally against visiting UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee (not in picture) in Yangon on January 16, 2014.

Myanmar's President Thein Sein has warned against the dangers of extremism as the country grapples with pockets of inter-communal tension amid the rise of right-wing Buddhist nationalism.

In an exclusive interview at the presidential palace in Naypyitaw, he told The Sunday Times: "Our people have shown great religious tolerance; we co-exist side by side. In Yangon, around the vicinity of Sule Pagoda, you can see churches, temples and mosques.

"But nowadays, we have seen some quarters domestically and internationally spreading extremism based on religion and ethnicity.

They have used the media in spreading extremism. It is quite dangerous. We have established interfaith groups to spread the message of religious tolerance."

He was replying to a question on the rise of right-wing Buddhist nationalism, which has seen some firebrand monks spreading anti-Islamic messages, and outbreaks of violence between Buddhists and Muslims threatening to undermine the country's still shaky transition to democracy from decades of oppressive military rule.

But he avoided mentioning any particular community or religion.

There are tension and a humanitarian crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state, where well over 100,000 minority Muslims were driven from their homes by Rakhine mobs in 2012 and still live in squalid camps.

These Muslims identify themselves as Rohingya but are widely seen as illegal "Bengali" immigrants by local Buddhist Rakhines and not officially recognised as citizens.

The President said it would take some time for the two communities to live side by side again. "We need to change the mindset of the two communities so it is in their best interest to live side by side and in harmony," he said.

The United Nations' special rapporteur on Myanmar, Ms Yanghee Lee, wound up a 10-day visit to the country last week saying that while there had been "some advancements" in Rakhine state since her last visit in July last year, "the situation remains at crisis stage".

"Efforts are being made to address certain issues, but much more is needed," she said.

She called on the government to "urgently… protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all inhabitants of Rakhine state regardless of legal status, to allow full and immediate access for humanitarian agencies across the state and to allow the safe return of all IDPs (internally displaced persons) to their communities of origin, including to their land".

In Naypyitaw, the President told The Sunday Times: "To prevent further communal violence, we have to beef up rule of law and security. Our government has done so, and because of this beefing up, we can say today we have been able to restore peace and stability in Rakhine state."

The government was also making efforts to improve socio-economic conditions in the state, he said.

Basic infrastructure was being improved, electricity provided, and two major projects - the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project with India, and a Special Economic Zone in Kyaukpyu - would create more jobs in the impoverished state.

The government would also try to move the internally displaced persons in camps this year, and build them "permanent houses in permanent resettlements".

"We will work with the international community in constructing these permanent houses and we will then let the villagers choose of their own volition the places where they want to resettle," he said.

This article was first published on Jan 18, 2015.
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