Myanmar government human rights officials met community leaders and other residents of riot-torn Rakhine state on Wednesday, appealing to them to help contain communal violence in a bid to uphold human rights following deadly clashes last year.
“Whenever there is violence, human rights are violated. So we must not fight each other,” Sit Mying, secretary of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, told an audience of ethnic majority Rakhine Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims in the state capital Sittwe.
Clashes between the two groups last year in the state in northwestern Myanmar left more than 200 dead and 140,000 displaced, mostly Rohingya Muslims who are seen by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Another 45 have died this year in sporadic outbreaks of violence in Rakhine and elsewhere in Myanmar, according to official sources.
Rights groups have expressed concern that sectarian strife may also hinder Myanmar President Thein Sein's program of political and economic reforms, which has drawn praise around the world and resulted in the lifting of international sanctions imposed during the previous military junta’s rule.
Speaking on Wednesday to the gathering of about 300 representatives of civil society organizations, members of political parties, government service providers, and community leaders in Rakhine, Sit Mying urged an end to the fighting.
“We told them that the nation will develop only if there is stability and the rule of law and if there are no riots or other clashes in the country,” Sit Mying told RFA’s Myanmar Service in an interview.
“But we need to understand that we won’t be able to accomplish this tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow,” he added.
At the meeting, the Commission, which was established in September 2011 to protect and promote the rights of Myanmar citizens, also presented an outline of the rights provided in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with guidance on how to submit letters complaining of violations, Sit Mying said.
“The people in these places now have a very clear understanding of their basic rights—not only what they should reasonably expect, but what they can gain through demands or complaints, and how to report concerns about violations to the authorities,” he said.
Meeting participants also asked questions concerning freedom of religion and citizenship issues in the Buddhist-majority country, where the Rohingyas are denied official recognition, Sit Mying said.
“On the question of citizenship, we are going to contact the relevant government ministry. Then we will tell them what local residents have said to us on this issue and will urge the ministry’s officials to follow up.”
The majority of Rohingyas, according to rights groups, have been denied citizenship as they are considered by most in Myanmar and the country's government to be illegal immigrants, preventing them access to many basic rights in the country.
Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law recognizes only those families who had settled in the country before independence from Britain in 1948, but many of the 800,000 Rohingyas who live in Rakhine state say they have lived there for generations.
The U.N. has referred to the group as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Sit Mying said that commissioners also visited two refugee camps in Rakhine.
“The people in the camps look okay with the food and shelter they’ve been provided,” he said. “We also saw several clinics, as well as schools in which their children are being given an informal education.”
Following Wednesday’s meeting in Sittwe, commissioners will travel to the towns of Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, and Mrauk-U to hold talks with local residents there, Sit Mying said.
Most of those displaced by the fighting in Rakhine are Rohingyas and remain in camps—more than half of them children under the age of 18.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Richard Finney.