Myanmar leader says force an option to end riots

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 28, 2013 at 11:26 pm •  Published: March 28, 2013
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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar President Thein Sein said that his government will use force if necessary to quell deadly religious rioting that started last week, as attacks on Muslims by Buddhist mobs continued in several towns.

In his first public comments on the violence, Thein Sein warned in a televised speech Thursday that he would make all legal efforts to stop "political opportunists and religious extremists" trying to sow hatred between faiths.

Police announced Thursday that 42 people have been killed, 37 religious buildings and 1,227 houses have been damaged or destroyed, and 68 arrests have been made in the three affected regions since the recent unrest started on March 20.

The violence began with rioting by Buddhists targeting minority Muslims in the central city of Meikhtila that drove about 12,000 people from their homes. It spread this week to several towns in the Bago region, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of the country's biggest city, Yangon. One incident was reported near Naypyitaw, the capital.

Curfews and bans on public gatherings have been imposed in the affected areas, but state television reported that groups of people attacked houses, shops and religious buildings on Thursday in two towns in Bago. On Wednesday, it reported that security forces fired shots into the air to break up attacks, which residents said targeted Muslim properties.

"In general, I do not endorse the use of force to solve problems. However, I will not hesitate to use force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of the general public," said Thein Sein, who took office in 2011 as part of an elected civilian government after almost five decades of repressive military rule.

By instituting democratic changes and economic liberalization, he has built a reputation as a reformer and restored relations with Western nations that had shunned the previous military regime for its poor human rights record.

"We must expect these conflicts and difficulties to arise during our period of democratic transition," he said in a 10-minute speech. "As we rebuild our society, we must rise above 60 years of historical bitterness, confrontational approaches and a zero-sum attitude in solving our differences."

Myanmar, then called Burma, became independent from Britain in 1948, but suffered from instability because of tensions between various ethnic minorities. Parliamentary government proved fractious, and was ended by a military coup in 1962.

Occasional isolated violence involving majority Buddhists and minority Muslims has occurred for decades, even under the authoritarian military governments that ruled the country from 1962 to 2011. But tensions have heightened since last year when hundreds of people were killed and more than 100,000 made homeless in violence in western Myanmar between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya.