THE POLITICAL liberalization in Burma is far from complete, but already it is displaying a dark side. In Burma, as in many other countries where dictatorships have crumbled, a new freedom is being exploited by religious and ethnic extremists — including some who were lauded for their opposition to the military regime. In several parts of the country, Buddhist extremists are targeting Muslims with hate propaganda, calls for boycotts and waves of violence. Both the government and democratic opposition parties have been slow to respond.

The latest bloodshed began March 20 in the central city of Meiktila, when a dispute between a Muslim jeweler and a customer led to rioting and clashes between Buddhists and Muslims. According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 40 people were killed; in addition, several residential areas were burned to the ground. Satellite photographs analyzed by Human Rights Watch showed more than 800 buildings destroyed, in what appeared to be deliberate acts of ethnic cleansing. The United Nations reported that 12,000 people were displaced.

The rioting resembled attacks on Muslims of the Rohingya ethnic group in the western Burmese state of Rakhine last year. Some 180 people were killed and 100,000 made homeless in several waves of rioting. The Rohingya, who have been denied citizenship by the Burmese government, now are crowded into squalid refu­gee camps, where they live under curfew and are barred from entering the state’s capital city, Sittwe.

The majority of Burma’s population is ethnic Burmese and Buddhist, but many Muslims immigrated to the country from South Asia during British rule.

Both the government and the Buddhist monkhood, famous for the 2007 “saffron revolution” against the dictatorship, have been complicit in the violence. Human Rights Watch reports that “some well-known members of the Buddhist monkhood . . . have given sermons and distributed anti-Muslim tracts and directives that call on Buddhist residents to boycott Muslim businesses and shun contact with Muslim communities.”The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Burma human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said he had received reports of “state involvement” in some of the violence, adding that “police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organized ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs.” Not until eight days after the most recent rioting began did President Thein Sein deliver a speech vowing to use force to stop the violence; it quickly subsided.

To their credit, some former opposition leaders from the 88 Generation movement traveled to Meiktila to defuse tensions. But the National League for Democracy has been slow to respond. Its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who appears focused on presidential elections scheduled for 2015, has been largely silent on the issue, leading some to suggest she is catering to ethnic Burmese voters. If so, that would be both a moral error and a political miscalculation: Burma cannot become a democracy unless the human rights of its minorities are respected.