Outcasts ... a man weeps after his arrest in Bangladesh. Photo: AP
The recent brutal religious violence in Burma's western Arakan state has cast a shadow on the country's democratic progress. Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds of homes destroyed as Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims clash near the Bangladeshi border in the country's worst sectarian violence in decades.
Even more shocking than the violence has been the public outpouring of vitriol aimed at the Rohingya, the stateless minority group at the centre of the conflict.
Considered ''illegal Bengali immigrants'' by the government, they are denied citizenship and are widely despised within Burmese society. Anti-Rohingya views have swept both social and mainstream media, seemingly uniting politicians, human rights activists, journalists, and civil society across Burma's myriad ethnic groups.
''The so-called Rohingya are liars,'' one pro-democracy group said on Twitter. ''We must kill all the kalar,'' another social media user said. Kalar is a racial slur applied to dark-skinned people from the Indian subcontinent.
Burmese refugees, who themselves have fled persecution, gathered at embassies around the world to protest against the ''terrorist'' Rohingya invading their homeland. Even the prominent student leader Ko Ko Gyi, who played a key role in the 1988 democratic uprising, lambasted them as impostors and frauds.
No doubt Burma's nascent media freedom has played a key role in stirring up religious tensions. Vast swaths of inflammatory misinformation are circulating inside Burma, with mainstream media largely accusing al-Qaeda and ''illegal Bengali terrorists'' of staging the violence in a bid to spread Islam in Asia. Many allege that the Rohingya are burning their own houses to attract attention.
One newspaper published a graphic photograph of the corpse of Thida Htwe, a Buddhist woman whose rape and murder - allegedly by three Muslim men - instigated the violence, prompting the President, Thein Sein, to suspend the publication using censorship laws.
These are the same papers that in recent months have openly criticised the government for the first time since a nominally civilian administration took over last year.
Ironically, this freedom has also led to a virulent backlash against foreign and exiled media, who have reported on the plight of the Rohingya, described by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted groups.
Following the latest violence, a number of online campaigns have been set up to co-ordinate attacks against news outlets that dare to report on the Rohingya's plight. Angry protesters rallied in Rangoon this week, brandishing signs reading ''Bengali Broadcast Corporation'' and ''Desperate Voice of Bengali''.
The latter was a reference to this reporter's employer, the Democratic Voice of Burma, the Norwegian broadcaster that has made a name for itself among many Burmese as one of the most reliable sources of information about their country.
Recently the broadcaster faced the biggest attack on its website in its history, and its Facebook page is still under constant assault from people issuing threats and posting racist material.
As the International Crisis Group explains, the violence is both a consequence of, and a threat to, Burma's political transition.
The ongoing crisis illustrates the need for Burma to embrace not only independent, but also responsible and inclusive, journalism. To facilitate this transition, the government must take concrete steps to address the underlying dispute about the Rohingya. The sheer level of racism against them in Burmese society, enforced by a government policy of discrimination and abuse, lies at the core of the matter.
A politician from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party has called for a ''king dragon operation'', the name for a 1978 military operation run by the dictator General Ne Win to stamp out the Rohingya population from Northern Arakan state.
Meanwhile, reports of army complicity in attacks on Muslim homes are growing after a state of emergency was declared last month. The immigration minister, Khin Yi, has again reiterated that ''there are no Rohingya in Burma,'' while Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy continues to carefully sidestep the hot-button issue.
State media has also fanned tensions by using the racial slur kalar in their official appeal for calm after 10 Muslim pilgrims were murdered to avenge Htwe's death.
While the government has taken ostensible steps to calm the violence, including publishing a retraction for the racial slur, it is far from sufficient. Neither is invoking draconian censorship laws a viable solution.
There must be a rational public debate on the future of the Rohingya minority in Burma.
The issue is sensitive and complex, but it cannot be ignored. Political leaders, especially Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, along with the international community, have an obligation to drive this process. A failure to do so threatens to unravel Burma's democratic reform at a time when it cannot afford to regress...............................