Myanmar president visits riot hit western state

imageTHANDWE (MYANMAR) (AFP) – Myanmar’s leader toured a strife-wracked western state Wednesday after anti-Muslim riots left one dead and homes razed in a resurgence of sectarian violence that has overshadowed internationally lauded political reforms.

President Thein Sein arrived in Rakhine on Tuesday on his first trip to the region since a wave of religious bloodshed first erupted in June 2012, leaving dozens dead and displacing tens of thousands of people.

“The main focus of the trip is the communal violence,” said a presidential official who asked not to be named.

In the latest clashes, a mob of hundreds of Buddhists burned houses and stabbed a 94-year-old woman to death in the Thandwe area of Rakhine on Tuesday, police said, reporting that the violence had since abated.

“There was no more violence last night. The situation is calm,” a police official in Rakhine state told AFP on Wednesday.

Four Buddhists travelling on a motorbike were injured when attacked by Muslims on Tuesday, while a fifth was missing, he said.

“They were beaten and one is missing??? we don???t know whether he is dead or ran away,” the official added.

The region is home to the popular tourist destination of Ngapali Beach although no foreigners were believed to have been caught up in the unrest.

Around 250 people have been killed and more than 140,000 left homeless in several outbreaks of violence around the country since June 2012, mostly in Rakhine.

Thein Sein was due to hold meetings with Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities during his two-day tour, but it was still not decided if a previously scheduled visit to the Thandwe area would go ahead, his office said.

Immigration Minister Khin Yi told reporters he still expected Thein Sein to go to Thandwe.

The former general turned president spent Tuesday visiting a different area of Rakhine populated mainly by stateless Rohingya Muslims.

In a message to a multi-faith conference, which was carried in state media on Wednesday, Thein Sein lamented “instigations fueling minor crimes into conflicts between the two communities and two religions”.

“Such instability based on religion and race harms and delays the state reforms and tarnishes the national image internationally,” he warned.

Four major Myanmar Muslim organisations released an open letter to Thein Sein late Tuesday calling on the government to take urgent law enforcement action.

“The concerns of minority Muslims around the country have reached peak levels. They feel they have no security,” the letter said.

Two outbreaks of unrest in Rakhine state in June and October last year left about 200 people dead, mostly Rohingya who are denied citizenship by Myanmar and viewed by the government and many local people as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The conflict has since spread around the ethnically-diverse country, with members of the wider Muslim community targeted by armed Buddhist mobs.

The latest clashes follow an argument over a parking space near a Muslim home last week in Thandwe town which triggered arson attacks against property owned by local Kaman Muslims, according to the authorities.

“They burned about 18 houses. After that a 94-year-old Kaman Muslim woman was stabbed (to death),” he said.

Several more homes were torched in another village on Tuesday, as security forces fired some 30 warning shots to disperse two opposing groups of Buddhists and Muslims that had formed near the police station, authorities said.

Rights groups have in the past accused Myanmar security forces of complicity in the violence — an allegation denied by the authorities.

Thousands of Rohingya boat people — including women and children — have fled the former junta-ruled country since last year, mostly heading for Malaysia on a perilous sea voyage.