YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar President Thein Sein, nearly one year after sectarian violence first exploded under his watch, vowed Monday his government would do everything it can to protect the rights of minority Muslims living in the predominantly Buddhist nation.
The promise came amid fears that the religious unrest, which has morphed into a campaign against the country's Muslim community, could spread further after a new round of attacks last week saw several Muslim villages north of the main city Yangon burned to the ground.
Thein Sein's administration, which came to power in 2011 after half a century of military rule, has been heavily criticized for not doing enough to protect Muslims or stop the violence from spreading since it began with clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in the west last year.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused authorities — including Buddhist monks, local politicians, government officials, and state security forces — of fomenting an organized campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the Muslims; the government has denied the charges. So far, hundreds of people have died and more than 135,000 people — almost all of them Muslims — have fled their homes.
In a speech broadcast on state television late Monday, Thein Sein vowed his "government will take all necessary action to ensure the basic human rights of Muslims in Rakhine state, and to accommodate the needs and expectations of the Rakhine people."
"In order for religious freedom to prevail, there must be tolerance and mutual respect among the members of different faiths," he said. Only then, he added, "will it be possible to coexist peacefully."
During his speech, the Myanmar leader also announced he would implement the recommendations of a special government-appointed panel set up last year to investigate the causes of the conflict.
The panel — whose members included ethnic Rakhine but no Rohingya — made myriad recommendations, including doubling the number of security forces in Rakhine state and introducing family planning programs to stem population growth among Muslims.
The Rohingya living in Rakhine state are widely seen as foreign intruders — illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh who are largely denied citizenship even though many of them have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Thein Sein said his administration will "take all necessary security measures to deter illegal immigration," and "will deal with the citizenship-related issues," though he gave no details on how.
He promised aid to strife-hit Rakhine state and said his government would assist foreign aid organizations working in the country. But he said some international relief agencies operating there "may have worsened the situation" and should take into account "local sensitivities when planning activities."
Local Buddhists have repeatedly accused foreign aid groups of biased in favor of the Rohingya. International aid agencies, meanwhile, have complained their work has been obstructed and their staff have been physically threatened by extremists; they acknowledge that much aid is directed at the Rohingya, but they argue that is simply because the vast majority of displaced are Rohingya.
Thein Sein, who has been praised by the West for making moves to transition to democratic rule, also said that although free speech is the essence of democracy, "some people abuse this right with speech intended to provoke, cause fear and spread hatred, thereby exacerbating the conflict between different religious communities."
In recent months, a Buddhist campaign called "969," which urges Buddhists to shop only at Buddhist stores and avoid marrying, hiring or selling their homes or land to Muslims, has spread rapidly across the nation. Human rights activists say it has helped fuel anti-Muslim violence.