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Myanmar president calls for religious harmony

Thein Sein says nation can learn from recent tension between religious and ethnic groups as citizens celebrate New Year.

Last Modified: 14 Apr 2013 09:58
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Thein Sein is leading a transition towards democracy but Myanmar remains plagued by conflict [AFP]

Myanmar's president says his country needs to learn from the violence and instability that has wracked the country over the last two years if it is to overcome the challenge of democratising the nation.

Thein Sein spoke on Sunday to mark the start a day earlier of a traditional New Year holiday that is celebrated across Southeast Asia with friendly water fights.

"Our society has overcome many difficulties and challenges together so we can emerge as a society in which multiple races and religions coexist harmoniously, while still preserving our own customs and traditions," he said in a televised speech.

Sein, a former general, took office two years ago after Myanmar's long ruling junta stepped down.

He has led a transition towards democratic rule since then, but the country has been plagued by a war with ethnic Kachin rebels in the north, sectarian violence in western Rakhine state, and anti-Muslim clashes in central Myanmar last month.

Buddhist-Muslim clashes in Rakhine last year left at least 180 people dead, mostly minority Muslim Rohingya.

March memories

The riots in March left 43 people dead, thousands displaced and saw homes and mosques destroyed.

Three people including a gold shop owner were last jailed for 14 years in connection with the riots that began in the town of Meiktila in central Myanmar on March 20.

Radical monks have been linked to the subsequent unrest, which observers said appeared to be well organised.

Rights groups have accused security forces of standing by while the attacks took place.

Myanmar's efforts at democratisation had been hampered by "black spots such as disunity, conflict and instability," Sein said.

Political changes should be targetted with "patience, tolerance and persistence", he urged citizens.

The situation has calmed since Thein Sein on March 28 vowed a tough response against those behind the violence.

Myanmar's New Year, known as the Thingyan, is a hugely popular mass celebration in which people throw water at each other to symbolise the washing away of the previous year's bad deeds.

Festivities, increasingly raucous as the country opens to the world, have been marred by bloodshed in the past, with a series of blasts in 2010 that left 10 people dead and about 170 wounded.

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