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August 10, 2012

Burma: Sectarian Violence Not About Race or Religion

by VOA News

Burmese President Thein Sein says the recent deadly communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma's western Rakhine state "has nothing to do with race or religion."

The president made his comments Thursday while hosting Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is in the country to offer aid for the tens of thousands who have been displaced in the conflict.  President Thein Sein says the unrest was ignited by the brutal murder of a girl and the desire for revenge against those who committed the crime.

Sectarian violence between ethnic Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists has killed dozens since late May, according to official figures. But some rights groups and media reports suggest the figure may be higher.

President Thein Sein dismissed such speculation in comments carried Friday by the state-controlled New Light of Myanmar, saying he was "disheartened by the hairsplitting of the media." He insisted that only 77 people - 31 Rakhine and 46 Rohingya - have died.

Before leaving for Burma, Foreign Minister Davutoglu said he had received "conflicting information" regarding casualty figures in Rakhine state, telling reporters he has spoken with religious leaders who say thousands have died.

The violence broke out in late May after three Muslim men were accused of raping and murdering a young Buddhist woman and 10 Muslims were killed in an apparent revenge attack.

The issue has prompted a wave of criticism by Muslim-majority nations, some of whom view the conflict as a case of religious persecution against the Rohingya. The Saudi-based Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has also urged a probe into the violence.

Rights groups have also called for Burma to do more to protect the Rohingya, most of whom are denied citizenship. Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that Burmese security forces have committed killings, rape, and mass arrests against the group in the aftermath of the sectarian violence.

Burma has denied the accusations, saying its security forces acted with restraint after moving quickly to put an end to the riots. It says it is working to provide relief to the 60,000 people left homeless from the conflict.

President Thein Sein on Thursday welcomed the $50 million aid donation by Turkey. He also said he would welcome a visit by the OIC leaders so they can "witness the reality" in Rakhine.

The state has seen a heavy police presence since June, when a state of emergency rule was declared to end the violence. Some rights say the conflict threatens to put a damper on the recent political and economic reforms carried out by Burma's nominally civilian government.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.