Burma’s president has vowed to take action against instigators of last week’s religious riots in Mandalay, while saying the misuse of newfound media freedoms was responsible for escalating tensions.
In a radio address on Monday evening, Thein Sein blamed poverty and poor education for the rise in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims since his government came to power three years ago, but said some instances of religious violence have been caused by instigators. “Severe action will be taken against those who intentionally spread hate speech and caused the riots, regardless of their race or religion,” he said.
The clashes that began last Tuesday in Burma’s second-biggest city were sparked by reports on social media that a Buddhist woman had been raped by two Muslim men. Fighting continued throughout the week, mostly at night, until the government imposed a curfew in the city.
Two people were killed in the violence, while at least 14 people were injured.
Political commentator Yan Myo Thein said the government had a poor track record when it came to handling religious unrest. “The cabinet has obviously failed to take action, ensure security and solve similar conflicts over the past three years,” he told The Irrawaddy, in reaction to the president’s radio address.
Thein Sein offered his condolences to the families of the Muslim man and Buddhist man who were slain in the riots last week, and said he appreciated the cooperation of residents with authorities to stop the fighting.
The president also discussed the role of media in maintaining stability, with a chilling warning to reporters.
He said Burma enjoyed some of the highest levels of media freedom in Southeast Asia, after the government abolished pre-publication censorship in 2012, but that those freedoms had been misused. “Affirmative action will be taken against those who threaten state stability rather than using media freedom for good,” he said.
The warning comes as journalists face increasing pressure from Naypyidaw. Human Rights Watch has accused the government of backsliding on press freedom recently, including by imprisoning several journalists over the past year, tightening restrictions on journalist visas and sending Special Branch police officers to news bureaus.
Prominent columnist Sithu Aung Myint said he worried the government was mistakenly conflating hate speech on social media with the reporting of professional journalists. “There will be bad consequences if the government uses the riots as an excuse to control media freedom,” he told The Irrawaddy.
He added, however, that hate speech was a real problem, with people distributing inflammatory messages not only online, but also via posters, CDs, videos and pamphlets. “We do not support the banning of Facebook, but the government needs to find a way to tackle it, because the widespread distribution of hate speech is happening in communities, not only on social media,” he said.
The president has spoken against hate speech at least four times since taking office. “He also said in 2013 that action would be taken against those who promoted hate speech, but no action was taken,” Sithu Aung Myint said.