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Don’t mix religion and politics, says Thein Sein amid simmering tensions

Anasuya Sanyal
August 1, 2013

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein has called for a line to be drawn between politics and religion in the country. In his regular monthly radio address to the nation, the president warned of the danger of mixing the two, and the possible long-term detrimental impact on society.
Myanmar President Thein Sein (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

SITTWE, Myanmar: Myanmar’s President Thein Sein has called for a line to be drawn between politics and religion in the country. In his regular monthly radio address to the nation, the president warned of the danger of mixing the two, and the possible long-term detrimental impact on society.

His comments come amid simmering ethnic and religious tensions in some parts of the country.

In 2012, sectarian violence engulfed the capital city of Sittwe and the city remains a patchwork of religiously segregated zones.

In Rakhine state, the country’s second poorest which borders Bangladesh, Buddhist-Muslim violence is a dangerous flashpoint in a country making great strides.

Muslims make up five per cent of Myanmar’s population of 60 million, and not all of them are the same. The Muslim population who call themselves Rohingya are the main targets — they are not a recognised ethnic minority and are accused by some in Rakhine of being separatists.

Government officials openly describe them in a derogatory manner.

Win Nying, an information officer in Rakhine, said: “As their population explodes, they don’t observe proper hygiene. We provide drinking water, but they don’t use it. Instead they drink water from the side of the road. We give them soap, but they don’t use it. They don’t care about personal hygiene. This is one of the reasons they die in the hospital. It is not the hospital’s fault.”

More generalised anti-Muslim rhetoric is beginning to take the shape of a popular movement with dark undertones. A recent TIME magazine cover describes U Wiratu, a popular monk in Mandalay who delivers explicitly anti-Muslim sermons, as “the new face of Buddhist terror”. This has angered many in the country.

Monks, who hold the highest moral authority among Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population, said that some Muslim practices such as polygamy and lack of higher education for girls make them unwelcome in the country.

Shin Ngana, a monk and Buddhist youth group leader, said: “In my opinion and other Rakhines’ opinion, the (Rohingya) should belong in their own place. For instance, if they came from Bangladesh, they should go back there. If they want to stay in this country, they should respect and follow the values of this country. Then, there will be no problem.”

The United Nations has helped tens of thousands of people displaced by the violence and has offered even more assistance.

Hans ten Feld, the Myanmar country representative with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said: “We have experiences from elsewhere. It’s not the first time that we work in a situation like this. We could try and bring in our expertise to try and help bring communities together.”

But in something of a first, NGOs, including the UN, have come under fire and been accused of helping only the Muslim community. There was even a t-shirt campaign launched in protest.

A local resident said: “The UN and NGOs don’t respect and support the Rakhine people who are the natives of this region. But they supported the Bengali who are illegal re-settlers and who have made their homes in this region.”

Under military rule, when sectarian troubles flared, they were quickly clamped down and any dissent forbidden.

The streets of Sittwe are calm for now, but separating communities by checkpoints and razor wire is not a sustainable solution.