Myanmar’s president has pledged to consider new rights for the stateless Rohingya minority ahead of a landmark visit by President Barack Obama, but stopped short of a full commitment that citizenship and other new freedoms would be granted.
In a letter sent to the United Nations on Friday, President Thein Sein made conciliatory remarks that condemned the “senseless violence” in western Rakhine state between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya.
Almost 200 people have died and more than 1,00,000 have been displaced since June in fighting between the two communities, reports Associated press.
The persecution of Rohingyas also affects Bangladesh. Whenever communal violence breaks out in Myanmar, the minorities intrude into Bangladesh through Teknaf bordering area.
Bangladesh accommodates around 29,000 registered Rohingya refugees, although different estimates suggest the number of the Myanmarese minorities unofficially living in and around Cox’s Bazar ranges between 2.5 and 5 lakh.
Yesterday, the world’s top Islamic body called for the international community to protect Muslims in Myanmar’s unrest-hit Rakhine state from “genocide”.
“We expect the United States to convey a strong message to the government of Burma so they protect that minority, what is going on there is genocide,” said Djibouti’s Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, who is the acting chairman of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
“We are telling things how they are, we believe that the United States and other … countries … should act quickly to save that minority which is submitted to an oppressive policy and a genocide,” he said at the end of an OIC foreign ministers’ meeting in Djibouti.
OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu of Turkey also urged a stop to what he called “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, considered among the most persecuted groups in the world by the United Nations.
“We would like the international community to act immediately to stop the ethnic cleansing,” he said.
The 57-member OIC decided at an August summit in Mecca to take the issue before the UN General Assembly, writes AFP.
Obama tomorrow will become the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar in a short but hugely symbolic trip that he hopes will spur greater reform in the once isolated country and highlight a rare success for his policy of engaging pariah regimes.
Ahead of the visit, Thein Sein said yesterday that the communal unrest was hampering the country’s reforms and causing it “to lose face” on the world stage.
In October, he blocked the OIC from opening an office in the country, following rallies against the organisation’s efforts to help Rakhine’s Muslims.
In his letter to the UN, Thein Sein made no promises and offered no timeline for resolving the tensions, but it marked an overture to the international community and to Obama.
The White House has urged Myanmar to take urgent action to end the strife and has said Obama will press the matter with Thein Sein, along with demands to free political prisoners as the Southeast Asian country transitions to democracy after a half-century of military rule.
Thein Sein in his letter said his government was prepared to address contentious issues “ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship,” according to a statement from the spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that contained excerpts from the letter.
He said he also would look at issues including work permits and permits granting freedom of movement for the Rohingya to ensure they are treated in line with “accepted international norms.”
The UN statement called Thein Sein’s letter a step “in the right direction.”
It was not clear from his letter whether Thein Sein was changing his stance on citizenship for the Rohingya. He has previously cited strict citizenship laws stating that only Rohingya whose families settled in the country before independence from Britain in 1948 were considered citizens.
Meanwhile, Civil society activists in New Delhi have protested against what they said Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s unwillingness to acknowledge Rohingya Muslims’ plight in her homeland.
The protesting groups, including the Association for Protection of Civil Rights and the Democratic Students’ Union, on Friday issued a statement, in which they disapproved Suu Kyi’s continuous silence and ambivalent attitude towards the violence against “a section of her compatriots known as Rohingyas.”
Suu Kyi, who is now on a visit to India, told NDTV in an interview on Thursday that both sides were responsible for the ethnic violence in the Rakhine province and she did not want to take sides because she wanted to promote national reconciliation.
“The political position [on the issue] of Suu Kyi, the daughter of respected General Aung San who stood for democracy, peace and minority rights in Burma, is highly condemnable in all respects,” the statement says.
“Its a complete hypocrisy that Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t stand by the victims of the ethnic cleansing in Burma [Myanmar], but wants India to stand by her cause,” it adds.
The activists on Friday were agitating outside a leading women’s college in the capital of India.
Suu Kyi had discredited the plight of Rohingyas by describing the situation in Myanmar as a mere issue of law and order, they said, adding her fight for democracy would remain incomplete until she spoke against the persecution of such minorities in her own country.
The protesters were detained for a brief period at Greater Kailash Police Station before being freed.
The United Nations has called the Rohingya — who are widely reviled by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar — among the most persecuted people on Earth.
Myanmar denies the Rohingya citizenship, even though many of their families have lived in Myanmar for generations.
The UN estimates that 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar, where they face heavy-handed restrictions: They need permission to marry, have more than two children and travel outside of their villages.