United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Wednesday called on Myanmar’s government to uphold the rights of the country’s ethnic Rohingyas, amid a state plan to grant second-class citizenship to qualifying members of the Muslim minority group and expel the rest.
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday in the capital Naypyidaw, Ban highlighted the “serious humanitarian issue” of displaced Rohingyas in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the site of deadly clashes between Buddhists and Muslims since 2012.
He said he expressed concerns about the Rohingyas, who face discrimination and violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, when he met earlier with senior government officials, including Vice President Sai Mauk Kham.
“I encouraged the leaders of Myanmar to uphold human rights, take a strong stance against incitement and ensure humanitarian access to Rohingyas living in vulnerable conditions,” said Ban, who is attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit at the end of the country’s yearlong chairmanship of the 10-member group.
“At a time of rising extremism and intolerance in many countries, progress on this front in Myanmar would keep that country’s transition on track and send a positive message to the world,” he said.
Ban, who will meet with President Thein Sein on Thursday, also called on the government to grant Rohingyas full citizenship, rather than second-class citizenship status, if they met certain requirements.
“I’m urging that the human rights and human dignity of people in Rakhine state should be respected,” he said in response to a question on the issue.
“As the process of granting citizenship is now going on, the government must have its own criteria to determine whether one is eligible for citizenship …Then whoever is eligible to be given citizenship, I think they should be given citizenship equal to Myanmar people without any discrimination.”
Rakhine Action Plan
The government’s Rakhine Action Plan to develop the state requires Rohingya to meet stringent verification requirements for citizenship.
Under the policy, Rohingya must supply proof of a six-decade residency to qualify for naturalized citizenship—a second-class citizenship with fewer rights than full citizenship that would classify them as “Bengali” rather than Rohingya, indicating they have illegally immigrated from neighboring Bangladesh.
Those who fail to meet the requirement or refuse the Bengali classification would be housed in camps, and then deported.
Ban said the process of granting the Rohingyas citizenship should be carried out according to national law as well as international standards and guidelines.
He urged government authorities to “avoid measures that could entrench the current segregation between the communities and may unnecessarily create some additionally negative emotions between the communities.”
Currently, about 140,000 Rohingya live in refugee camps around Sittwe in the northern part of Rakhine state after being displaced by communal violence in the Buddhist-majority area over the last two years.
Rights groups say the Rohingyas have borne the brunt of the violence, which has forced many to flee by boat to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, where they are also held in refugee camps.
Ban said the U.N. is mobilizing all necessary resources to provide humanitarian assistance to the minority group.
He said he will press Thein Sein to give U.N. agencies “easy access” to Rakhine state so aid workers can move around with less difficulty.
The U.N. secretary general’s statements on the Rohingyas echo calls by U.S. President Barack Obama for Thein Sein’s administration to revise its policies on the ethnic minority group, especially with regard to resettlement.
Citing the persecution of the Rohingya, Obama cautioned that Myanmar appears to be backsliding on certain reforms, according to reports.
Obama will attend the U.S.-ASEAN summit in Naypyidaw on Thursday, marking his second visit to Myanmar since becoming the first sitting president to travel to the country two years ago. He is expected to raise the Rohingya issue in meetings with Thein Sein during the three-day trip.
The comments from Ban and Obama are part of growing international pressure on Mynamar in response to deplorable conditions in refugee camps housing Rohingyas.
Rights groups earlier this week expressed concern that Thailand might expel roughly 260 Rohingya boat people who had fled Myanmar, according to a Reuters report.
The report cited Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group, as saying that they are part of a major maritime exodus of nearly 10,000 people from the Southeast Asian nation.