Myanmar acts to address March attacks

Myanmar President Thein Sein (above) has ordered for the Buddhists involved in the anti-Muslim attacks to be jailed and abolished the border security police which has been blamed for many human rights abuses of minorities in western Rakhine state. Analysts see these developments as following up on the President's pledge to be even-handed in addressing anti-Muslim violence.

YANGON - Ahead of President Thein Sein's visit to Europe, Myanmar courts have jailed several Buddhists who were involved in attacks on Muslims in March, and Mr Thein Sein has abolished the Na Sa Ka, or border security police, blamed for many human rights abuses of minorities in western Rakhine state.

Analysts such as Yangon-based Mr Richard Horsey said the moves may blunt some of the criticisms levelled at the reformist President by overseas human rights groups, which have been lobbying the British government to pressure him on human rights during his visit to London this week.

Mr Thein Sein left for London and Paris on Sunday on a four-day trip, the first time he is visiting Britain and France.

Analysts also saw the developments as following up on the President's pledges to be even-handed in addressing anti-Muslim violence that has rocked parts of the country and dented its international image.

Mr Horsey said the jailing of the Buddhists late last week was a positive step. Anti-Muslim violence in Meikhtila in March left 40 people dead, most of them local Muslims. More than 2,000 homes were destroyed and well over 12,000 Muslims had to flee to guarded government shelters.

Jail sentences were first meted out to Muslims, which appeared to indicate bias on the part of the authorities and the courts.

"Most of the victims were Muslims, and the majority of those arrested were Buddhists, yet until now only Muslims have been jailed," Mr Horsey noted.

"The jailing of Buddhist perpetrators of these crimes is crucial in ensuring there is justice, and in ending any sense of impunity that may exist among violent extremists," he added.

Last Friday, a presidential notification abolished the Na Sa Ka with immediate effect. The Na Sa Ka, drawn from the army, police, Customs and immigration departments, is responsible for security and immigration control in Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh.

It is notorious for corruption and rights abuses of immigrants and minorities like the Rohingya Muslims.

"This is very positive," Mr Horsey said. "This was the agency that imposed marriage and 'two-child' restrictions on Muslims in Rakhine state. Although it cannot be taken for granted that another agency won't step forward to do this, no other existing agency will have the power and the reach of the Na Sa Ka."

Last Saturday, Mr Thein Sein met members of an inter-faith dialogue committee set up amid attacks on Muslims in March.

The group is part of a broad effort by Myanmar civil society, including Buddhists, to push back against anti-Muslim extremism, which could seriously destabilise the country and endanger its barely two-year-old transition to democracy after over four decades of military rule.

Speaking to committee members, Mr Thein Sein said: "Our country has seen many ethnic and religious conflicts in its long history. Yet, we also have a record of tolerance among people with different ethnic and religious backgrounds...

"We will do everything we can to help victims of extremist acts - including? heal their emotional wounds. We will also work with all community and religious groups to accelerate our efforts to create a democratic and united country."

At least 20 Buddhists and two Muslims were sentenced to jail last week, according to media reports. More will be sentenced in the coming days, they added.

nirmal@sph.com.sg

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