The United States said Monday it has “great concern” for the humanitarian situation in western Burma’s Rakhine state, following a visit by the American ambassador to the area three months after deadly violence between ethnic Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas.
"Broad swathes of both communities have been affected, and the humanitarian situation remains of great concern,” the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon said in a statement after the weekend visit by a group led by newly appointed ambassador Derek Mitchell and senior State Department official Joseph Yun.
“Going forward, it will be important to address the urgent needs, while also laying the groundwork for a long-term, sustainable and just solution” to the conflict," the embassy said.
The visit came as Burmese President Thein Sein dispatched a 25-member independent commission to investigate the circumstances under which violence erupted between the two communities in June, killing 80 people and leaving tens of thousands displaced.
A delegation from the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was also in Burma to visit the scene of the clashes, which sparked international allegations of human rights violations against the Rohingya, a group regarded by the U.N. as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
The U.S. Embassy also stressed in the statement the need for a long-term solution to ethnic strife in the area, listing as key challenges security and stability, freedom of movement and protection for local residents, and humanitarian access.
Mitchell’s delegation spent two days in Rakhine and met with Muslims, Buddhists, and members of NGOs in Sittwe, the capital of the state, and villages around Maungdaw, one of the towns ravaged by the violence.
Local residents said the delegation discussed the decades-old tensions between Rakhines, who form a majority in the state, and Rohingyas, who are regarded in Burma as immigrants from Bangladesh and referred to as “Bengalis” even though they have lived in Burma for generations.
One Muslim man in Sittwe’s Aung Mingalar district said that Yun and others in the U.S. delegation asked him why over the decades some members of his family were given white cards—temporary registration cards that cannot be used to claim citizenship —while others were not.
“He asked me, ‘Based on the population census from this village, in 1942, it was written that Rohingya Muslims and their descendants are counted as Bengalis and are to receive the white card, so why were your children counted as Bengali after marrying Rohingyas?” he said.
Thein Sein has said that some Rohingyas who came to Burma from Bangladesh during colonial rule under Britain and their descendants are recognized as citizens.
Aria Wuntha, the abbot of the Buddhist Shwe Zedi Monastery in Sittwe who met with members of the U.S. delegation, warned them that long-running tensions between Rakhines and Rohingyas could easily erupt again.
“Since 1942 until today, there have been six major conflicts between Rakhine and Bengalis [Rohingyas], and another conflict could break out at any point. That's what I told them.”
He told them he felt the conflict was tied to Rakhines feeling that they were being squeezed out of their territory by Rohingya and other populations.
“When they asked me if this was an ethnic or religious conflict, I said it is not an ethnic conflict. If it were, there would be conflict only between Rakhines and Bengalis [Rohingyas]. But Rakhine, Burman, Hindu, and Maramagyi villages were all burned, so I think the issue is about encroaching on land.”
Rakhines have been leaving the area around Maungdaw and now the area is mostly settled by Rohingyas, he said, blaming “extremist” Rohingyas for the problem.
He said a solution he recommended to the delegation is to distinguish between Rohingya who are eligible for citizenship and those who are not, and settle those who are not in refugee camps.
His recommendation echoed a plan proposed by Thein Sein in July, but swiftly rejected by the U.N., to put the U.N. refugee agency in charge of the Rohingya and have them resettled in another country.
The probe commission tasked by Thein Sein to investigate the conflict began a nine-day trip to the region on Friday, after having waited until the area was safe for travel.
“We will go to the places where the incidents happened,” writer and delegation member Maung Wuntha said. “Mainly we will listen to what the people have to say.”
He said a research and survey team was also currently undergoing training and would follow soon.
The commission, which counts Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders as well as leading dissidents among its members, was initially scheduled to conclude its investigation by Sept. 17, but waited to travel to Rakhine out of security concerns.
The commission’s mandate was extended for three months and it is expected to submit its findings and recommendations to the president’s office in mid-November.
A fact-finding team from the Saudi Arabia-based OIC, the world’s largest Muslim body, arrived in Burma on Thursday for a 10-day visit also to look into the issue.
The organization has expressed concern about rights violations against the Rohingya and has said it will bring up the team’s findings at the upcoming meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.
In August, Thein Sein said in a rare conciliatory move that the OIC would be allowed to visit Rakhine.
On Monday, Burmese government spokesman Ko Ko Hlaing, welcomed the OIC visit as a way to clear up "misperceptions," Associated Press reported.
“The Muslim world has expressed concern ... mainly because of misinformation,” Ko Ko Hlaing said.
The delegation’s visit comes ahead of a planned trip in October by OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.
In a speech to OIC senior officials on Sunday, Ihsanoglu said the group condemned the “heinous behavior” of the Burmese government against the Rohingya.
The treatment includes “the displacement and expulsion, the killing of hundreds among them in the last few years.”
“An OIC humanitarian assistance office may also be established in the capital Rangoon,” Ihsanoglu said, according to the OIC website.
On Sunday, an Indonesian man turned himself in and confessed to planning a suicide bomb plot against Buddhists in Jakarta to protest against Burma’s treatment of the Rohingya, police said Monday.
"It's related to the Rohingya issue in Myanmar [Burma]. [He] believed it's unfair to Muslims there," the Indonesian national police spokesman said.
Hundreds of Indonesian Muslim hardliners have expressed anger over the unrest in Rakhine state, protesting outside the Burmese Embassy in Jakarta in July.
Reported by Ingjin Naing and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.