Burma’s President Thein Sein has asked the U.N. refugee agency to place ethnic Rohingyas living in the country in refugee camps or send them abroad, a stunning proposal rejected immediately by the agency.
In a statement posted on the government website Thursday following deadly ethnic violence between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines in western Burma last month, Thein Sein said that the Rohingya are not welcome in his country.
“We will take care of our own ethnic nationalities, but Rohingyas who came to Burma illegally are not of our ethnic nationalities and we cannot accept them here,” he said.
The statement said Thein Sein told the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres in a meeting Wednesday that the Rohingyas should be placed in U.N.-sponsored refugee camps.
“The solution to this problem is that they can be settled in refugee camps managed by UNHCR, and UNHCR provides for them. If there are countries that would accept them, they could be sent there,” he said.
Guterres rejected the proposal, telling reporters that resettling or taking care of the Rohingyas in camps is not the refugee agency's job.
The U.N. says Rohingyas in Burma are displaced within their own country and insists they be treated as citizens. It considers Rohingya a stateless people and one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Some 800,000 Rohingya live in Burma, nearly all of them in Rakhine state. They live alongside ethnic Rakhines, one of Burma’s seven recognized minority nationalities.
The Burmese government considers the Rohingyas illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many of them have lived in Burma for generations.
In his statement, Thein Sein outlined the legal distinction between those who came to Burma before the country’s independence in 1948—often called “Bengalis”—and those who came after.
“In Rakhine state now, there are two distinct generation groups. The first group is those born from the pre-1948 Bengalis. Another generation group, under the name Rohingya, came to Burma later.”
He said those who were brought over to Burma during British rule between 1824 and 1948 were welcome in the country.
“Before 1948, the British brought Bengalis to work on the farms, and since there were ample opportunities to make a living here compared to where they came from, they didn’t leave,” he said.
“According to our laws, those descended from [the Bengalis] who came to Burma before 1948, the ‘Third Generation,’ can be considered Burmese citizens,” he said.
He added that current situation involving the Rohingyas living in Rakhine illegally was “threatening the country’s stability."
The violence between Rohingyas and the Rakhines that flared in June has left some 78 people dead and 90,000 displaced and living in camps, according to government statistics.
The clashes were sparked after an ethnic Rakhine woman was allegedly raped and killed by three Rohingya men in late May. On June 3, a group of Rakhine vigilantes attacked and killed 10 Rohingyas on a bus they believed were responsible for the woman’s death.
On June 8, thousands of Rohingyas rioted in Maungdaw, destroying Rakhine property, burning homes, and causing an unknown number of deaths. In the aftermath, Rohingyas carried out similar attacks on Rakhines elsewhere around the state.
Hundreds of Rohingyas have fled across the border to Bangladesh, though many have been forced back to Burma.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused Burmese security forces of responding with mass arrests and “unlawful force” against the Rohingya.
“The Burmese government needs to put an immediate end to the abusive sweeps by the security forces against Rohingya communities,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said in the statement.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Ko Win Naing. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.