President Thein Sein on Thursday warned “perpetrators” behind this week’s anti-Muslim riots that he “will not hesitate” to deploy security forces to stop the escalating violence.
In his first public broadcast since Buddhist mobs launched a spree of attacks on Muslim homes and mosques across the country, Thein Sein called on “the use of force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of the general public”.
The president also defended himself against critics, who say the government has been slow to respond to the violence, which has already claimed 40 lives and continues to ripple through central Burma.
“We did not resort to the use of force immediately mainly because we do not want to [endanger] our ongoing democratic transition and reform efforts,” he said.
“That said, I am firmly committed to use the powers vested in me by the constitution to deploy our security forces and to use existing laws to prevent and protect the life, liberty and security of my fellow citizens.”
Burma’s controversial military-backed constitution legally allows the president to “declare a military administrative order” and thereby hand over all executive and judicial powers to the military.
Anti-Muslim riots kicked off in Meikhtila township near Mandalay last Wednesday, resulting in wide-scale destruction of local mosques and homes. At least 12,000 people were displaced and a state of emergency was declared on Friday.
Buddhists mobs – often led by monks – have since led a series of attacks across central Burma, devastating townships across the Mandalay region and Pegu division. Residents say that although most of the aggressors have not been “locals”, the police have often stood idly by and watched as they ravaged property and religious buildings.
Thein Sein called on police forces to act “decisively, bravely and within the constraints of the constitution” in an apparent bid to stem concerns over their inertia. He also issued a stark warning to “instigators” and “perpetrators” behind the violence that they would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
“I would like to warn all political opportunists and religious extremists who try to exploit the noble teachings of these religions and have tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths for their own self-interest: their efforts will not be tolerated,” he said.
It follows reports that key political and religious figures have played a leading role in fuelling anti-Muslim propaganda, by preaching inflammatory sermons and distributing incendiary leaflets.
Although police have arrested several dozen perpetrators behind the violence, questions remain over why key instigators – including the prominent Islamophobic monk Wirathu – have not been prevented from practicing hate speech.
“There’s still a major lack of transparency in terms of who’s been arrested and what they have been arrested for,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch told DVB on Wednesday.
“Hate speech is not protected under freedom of expression in international rights terms, so where there is currently incitement of this sort, action has to be taken.”
But the president insisted that the recent violence is largely a consequence of Burma’s democratic reform programme, which began in March 2011, and has seen the country slowly emerge from five decades of military rule.
“We must expect these conflicts and difficulties to arise during our period of democratic transition,” he said, adding that the armed forces have played a “pivotal role in safeguarding property and assisting victims”.
However, many analysts see the recent anti-Muslim violence as a direct consequence of the former military regime’s policies, which often fuelled inter-ethnic and religious divisions in order to secure its power base.
This week’s unrest is the largest outburst of communal violence, since two bouts of ethno-religious clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Arakanese last year, which killed at least 200 people and displaced more than 125,000.