YANGON: President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi must show “moral leadership” if Myanmar is to stem communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists, the International Crisis Group said yesterday.
Unrest has left at least 180 people dead since June and displaced 110,000 -- mostly Rohingya Muslims, in western Rakhine State prompting international calls for the president and Nobel laureate Suu Kyi to defend the minority group.
“The flare-up in Rakhine State represents a deeply disturbing backward step,” from Myanmar’s reforms after decades of junta rule, the Brussels-based rights group said in a report on the crisis due to be released tomorrow.
“This is a time when political leaders must rise to the challenge of shaping public opinion rather than just following it. A failure to do so will be to the detriment of the country,” it added.
Urging the government to curb nationalist rhetoric from the ethnic Rakhine, who are Buddhists, the report warned of the threat of rising “identity politics” in Myanmar as reforms give new found freedoms to interest groups.
The volatile Rakhine situation needs “decisive moral leadership... by both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi to prevent it spreading and contribute towards long-term solutions”, the study said.
Scores were killed and thousands of homes were torched in renewed violence last month and the ICG urged the government to ensure camps for the displaced do not become a precursor to the “segregation” of Rakhine and Rohingya.
The sectarian violence pivots on the Rohingya’s lack of legal status in Myanmar, where they are seen by the government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants from their neighbour Bangladesh.
With around 800,000 stateless Rohingya in Rakhine, the reformist government is under international pressure to give them a legal status, with warnings that the conflict threatens its democratic transition.
In rare comments touching on the incendiary topic, Suu Kyi last week urged the government to be open in any discussions about the citizenship status of the ethnic minority.
But she has been widely criticised for failing to make her own position on the Rohingya clear, aware that many in Myanmar want the Muslim group to be sent to another country.
Suu Kyi’s reticence has the potential to undermine her position as a democracy figurehead and could also damage her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, the ICG said.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s government has said it “warmly welcomes” the historic visit of President Barack Obama later this month, expressing hope his trip will bolster the nation’s political reform drive.
His visit will “strengthen the resolve” of Thein Sein to “move forward” with reforms, a spokesman for Myanmar’s Presidential Office said late Friday.
Obama’s visit shows “concrete support for the democratisation process of President U Thein Sein, Daw (honorific) Aung San Suu Kyi, Members of Parliaments and the Myanmar people,” Zaw Htay said in a statement.
“President Thein Sein fully believes that the trip of President Obama will push the momentum of the process of democratic reform,” he added.