Indonesian president urges Myanmar to address Muslim violence

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The president of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, said on Tuesday he would urge Myanmar’s leaders to address Buddhist-led violence against Muslims that he said could cause problems for Muslims elsewhere in the region.

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono talks at a Reuters Newsmaker event in Singapore April 23, 2013. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s visit to Myanmar on Tuesday and Wednesday comes a month after at least 43 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in four days of violence led by Buddhist mobs in the central city of Meikhtila, 80 miles north of the capital, Naypyitaw. That sparked a wave of anti-Muslim violence.

“If it’s not addressed in the best way possible, its impact is not good for Myanmar and even for Indonesians who are majority Muslims,” Yudhoyono told a Thomson Reuters Newsmaker event, a forum held in Singapore.

Calm has been restored in Meikhtila and other volatile central areas after authorities imposed martial law and dispatched troops. A Reuters examination showed it was well organized, abetted at times by police turning a blind eye.

“I will encourage that Myanmar will address it wisely, appropriately and prevent tension and violence. We in Indonesia are ready to support them to reach those goals,” he said.

Yudhoyono will meet with Myanmar President Thein Sein during the visit and sign a memorandum of understanding on rice trade, an Indonesian government official said.

His visit also follows deadly unrest last year against Muslim Rohingya, an ethnic minority, in western Rakhine State which Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights watchdog, described in a report on Monday as ethnic cleansing -- a charge rejected by the government.

“There are other challenges in Myanmar like communal tensions facing the ethnic Rohingya,” Yudhoyono said.

Last year’s violence in Rakhine State killed at least 110 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, and left 120,000 homeless.

Rohingya activists claim their historical lineage in Rakhine dates back centuries, but Myanmar’s government regards the estimated 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh has refused to grant Rohingyas refugee status since 1992.

The violence has sparked an exodus of thousands of Rohingya fleeing Rakhine State by boat. Many have ended up in other Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia, where Buddhist and Rohingya Muslims clashed in an overcrowded immigration detention center last month.

Yudhoyono said Indonesia has a long history of engaging with Myanmar’s leaders dating to military rule “to encourage them to continue their process of democratization so they didn’t need to be hurt by embargoes”.

The European Union on Monday lifted sanctions imposed in response to human rights abuses during nearly five decades of military rule that ended in March 2011. The country, also known as Burma, has since embarked on a series of democratic reforms.

“World leaders now are visiting Myanmar because they see Myanmar has changed,” he said. “I will visit Myanmar today firstly to support and promote the process of democratization, of nation-building, of the rule of law, human rights.”

Editing by Neil Fullick