Friday, October 4, 2013
Myanmar President Promises 'New Ideas' To End Rakhine Violence
THANDWE, Myanmar (Nikkei)-- Myanmar president Thein Sein said his government would respond swiftly to a fresh outbreak of religious violence in western Rakhine state with "new ideas" and an acceleration of local economic development plans as he stepped up his call for Buddhist and Muslim communities to curb hostilities.
- Myanmar's president Thein Sein meets civic leaders in Rakhine state Oct. 1. (Photo by Ye Htut)
On a rare extended swing through the sprawling state following violent attacks on Muslims around the coastal town of Thandwe, Thein Sein and senior ministers and officials met religious and civic leaders and visited camps for displaced people over three days.
In the wake of the president's visit, local officials confirmed on Friday that at least six people were being detained in connection with the attacks, including two businessmen and a local politician.
Thein Sein appealed on Thursday in Thandwe for foreign investors and international organizations to help economic development in one of the country's poorest regions. "We need growth, investment, jobs," he told the Nikkei. "We are trying. I have new ideas to help achieve this, but we also need technological know-how, investment and help with training our people .. especially from big international organizations, such as the World Bank, as well as other investors. Only through peace and stability can we achieve economic development" in Rakhine.
One pillar of the president's plan is to push for tourism development in the state, particularly around Ngapali, adjacent to Thandwe. "We want to invite foreign investment. Look at this," he said gesturing towards a long beach. "It could be better than Bali. We just need investors and technical know how." Rakhine's sweeping coastline featured in the government's recently adopted tourism master plan, an ambitious strategy drawn up with the assistance of the Asian Development Bank.
The existing resort village at Ngapali had only just reopened after its regular three-month closure for monsoon season. During a meeting with the president, local tourism operators expressed dismay at the new outbreak of violence and particularly at the 6 p.m. curfew imposed on Tuesday.
"We want security for people but it's also about image," said Kalayar Moe, managing director of the Amara group, which owns one of the area's leading hotels. "Tourists hear about curfews and they worry."
More than 110 homes were destroyed, displacing more than 500 people, and at least five Muslims were killed and many more injured in mob violence that engulfed four or five villages near Thandwe on Tuesday.
The attacks, triggered by a dispute over a parking space in front of a Muslim-owned shop, highlighted deep-seated resentments between Myanmar's dominant Buddhist population and minority Muslims and the delicate balancing act required of the president.
Thein Sein said he had instructed local officials to step up support for both Buddhist and Muslim communities "regardless of religious or racial differences" and noted that the government would bring the perpetrators to justice and rebuild damaged homes. Officials are also understood to have asked U.N. relief agencies for help in dealing with the aftermath of the violence.
The timing of the attacks was particularly awkward for Thein Sein, who is heading to an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Brunei next week to accept the chairmanship of the 10-member group for 2014. The upheaval also coincided with the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines urged Myanmar to immediately curb the violence.
The latest upheaval follows bouts of religious violence that spread to other parts of Myanmar from June 2012, displacing more than 140,000 people, mainly Muslims in Rakhine and the central town of Meiktila, and causing at least 200 deaths. Some aid agencies say the toll so far may have exceeded 1,000.
Security forces were unprepared for the latest attacks, according to officials who said police units were initially outnumbered by angry mobs, who disregarded shots fired into the air.
The president would not comment on whether the violence was orchestrated, as some officials have suggested, although he blamed "political opportunists and extremists" for last year's outbreaks. One senior official said there were "clear connections" between wealthy local Buddhist businessmen, powerful politicians and extremist religious groups. The aim of the extremists, including the monk-led 969 movement, is to create "Muslim-free zones" in Rakhine state, he added.
Muslims account for more than 40% of Rakhine's estimated population of 3.8 million. Nationally they officially constitute 4% of the population, though some ethnographers put the figure at more than 15%.
The majority of Muslims in Rakhine are so-called "Rohingya" or "Bengalis", many of whose ancestors originated in Bangladesh. Most are denied Myanmar citizenship - although Thein Sein's government has indicated it is prepared to loosen criteria for citizenship, as recommended along with numerous other reforms by a special presidential commission of inquiry into last year's violence.
The Thandwe attacks are the latest indication that the violence, initially aimed at Rohingya, is moving from localized communal tensions into a broader religious conflict. Muslims around Thandwe, who account for about half the local population, are overwhelmingly Kaman, a group whose members have long been recognized as Myanmar citizens. The violence is also "a natural product" of the rapid democratization since Thein Sein came to power in early 2011, in the view of one western diplomat.
In an unusual move, the U.S. embassy, rather than the State Department in Washington, issued a strong statement on Wednesday urging the government to respond "quickly and decisively" to protect Rakhine residents and to investigate and "hold accountable those responsible for the violence".
--By Senior Asia Editor Gwen Robinson