Myanmar leader calls for unity after anti-Muslim unrest

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Myanmar’s reformist president called for multi faith harmony in a national address to mark the country’s New Year celebrations Sunday, following recent anti-Muslim unrest that has scarred communities.

Thein Sein dedicated his speech to promoting religious unity as the nation remains tense after a wave of rioting last month that left 43 dead, thousands displaced and saw homes and mosques destroyed.

“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.

The former general, whose reforms have garnered widespread praise, said the country’s efforts at democratization had been hampered by “black spots such as disunity, conflict and instability”.

He urged Myanmar citizens to work together to build on the country’s political changes with “patience, tolerance and persistence”.

Three people including a gold shop owner were last week jailed for 14 years in connection with the religious 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 organized. Rights groups have accused security forces of standing by while the attacks took place.

The situation has calmed since Thein Sein on March 28 vowed a tough response against those behind the violence, which follows Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the western state of Rakhine last year that left at least 180 people dead, mostly minority Muslim Rohingya.

Myanmar’s New Year, known as the Thingyan, is a hugely popular mass celebration in which people throw water at each other to symbolize 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.