YANGON, Burma (AP) — Reports of sectarian violence in Burma sicken the world, former U.S. President Bill Clinton said after speaking to political and civic leaders about challenges faced by the emerging democracy following a half-century of military rule.
The attacks on Muslims are a topic many in this predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million try to avoid. Soon after President Thein Sein formed a quasi-civilian government in early 2011 and began making sweeping political and economic changes, deep-seated prejudices started to surface. In the past year, more than 240 people have been killed and 240,000 others forced to flee their homes.
Most of the victims have been members of the minority Rohingya Muslim community, hunted down by stick- and machete-weilding Buddhist mobs, often as members of the security forces stood by.
And the government — together with much of the population — has been largely silent.
“The whole world has been pulling for Burma, even since you opened up,” said Clinton, who was visiting the country for the first time, his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, preceding him by two years.
“The whole world cheers every piece of good news and is sick every time they read about sectarian violence,” he said. “Because everywhere on earth, people are tired of people killing each other and fighting each other because of their differences.”
Clinton, who met earlier Thursday with Thein Sein, House Speaker Shwe Mann and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was officially in the main city of Yangon with his nonprofit The Clinton Foundation, which will help the government procure drugs for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, tackle maternal and infant mortality, and improve agricultural development.
But it was clear, in a 40-minute speech before a tightly packed audience at the Burma Peace Center, that sectarian violence was not far from his mind.
He pointed to examples elsewhere across the globe where countries have been ripped apart by ethnic and religious conflict, including some during his own presidency — the Balkans, the Middle East and Northern Ireland.
He spoke too about ways in which former foes managed eventually to put aside their differences and work together.
Burma’s situation may be unique, its history complicated, he said, but “some lessons are applicable to everyone.”
It’s important to always remember, for instance, that no one is right all the time and that complicated problems are best solved by large groups with diverse experience and knowledge, he said.