Obama worried at state of Rohingyas

Presses Myanmar to give them citizenship, voices alarm over reforms

The United States yesterday called for Myanmar to allow stateless Rohingya Muslims to become citizens, after President Barack Obama said he was “deeply concerned” about the marginalised group.

Obama, who is in Myanmar’s capital to attend the East Asia Summit, would push to ensure the “fundamental universal rights” of all those in the nation, a White House official said.

The US president also met with Myanmar democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi after voicing alarm the Southeast Asian nation’s much celebrated political reforms were backsliding.

The meeting took place in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, as Obama took time out from a summit that had been meant to heap praise on the country’s shift from army rule, but instead has highlighted growing concerns over the transition.

The US leader set the tone for his three-day trip to Myanmar with hard-hitting comments on the pace of reforms in an interview with news website The Irrawaddy published just before he arrived on Wednesday.

“Even as there has been some progress on the political and economic fronts, in other areas there has been a slowdown and backsliding in reforms,” Obama said.

“In addition to restrictions on freedom of the press, we continue to see violations of basic human rights and abuses in the country’s ethnic areas, including reports of extrajudicial killings, rape and forced labour.”

Obama planned to speak out on behalf of the nation’s Muslim Rohingya minority in “all of his engagements” in Myanmar, his deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters yesterday.

Around 140,000 Rohingya languish in fetid displacement camps in western Rakhine State after religious violence flared two years ago, leaving scores of the minority dead and casting a dark cloud over the nation’s path to democracy.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday also raised the “serious humanitarian” condition of the Rohingya.

A draft of a controversial government-backed Rakhine Action Plan seen by AFP would force Rohingya to identify themselves as Bengali — a term seen as disparaging — in order to apply for citizenship. Those who refused would be forced to live in camps.

Many in Myanmar’s government and local Buddhists view Rohingya as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, while many from the community say they can trace their ancestry in the country back for generations.

Rhodes said Obama would encourage all Myanmar figureheads, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to support an alternative plan for the Rohingya that “allows them to become citizens of this country without having to self-identify as something they do not believe they are”. The plan should also provide more humanitarian access and ensure they are not “settled indefinitely in camps”.

Since the current violence erupted in 2012, some 100,000 people have taken to boats, many barely sea-worthy, to escape the dire conditions in Rakhine, where both Buddhist and Muslim communities have long suffered Myanmar’s worst poverty levels.

Meanwhile, Rakhine authorities yesterday issued a rebuke to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for his insistence that the United Nations would use the term Rohingya as part of its principle to “recognise the rights of minorities” at a press conference in Naypyidaw on Wednesday.

Rakhine State Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn said Ban’s comments “could further inflame local sentiment and undo previous gains we have achieved”, in a document released by the ministry of information.

Obama has framed Myanmar’s reform process as an example of the positive effects of US engagement.

Most Western sanctions on Myanmar were dropped as it released political prisoners and loosened draconian press censorship, allowing a flurry of investor interest in the country seen as an exciting untapped market.

But, with the military still holding dominant positions and ethnic tensions flaring, questions have been raised around the world over whether the democratic process can be completed.

Suu Kyi is also barred from the presidency due to a clause in the constitution that is widely regarded as having been written for her — it rules out people with foreign spouses or whose children are foreign citizens. Suu Kyi’s husband, who died in 1999, was British and they have two sons.

Obama will hold more in-depth discussions with Suu Kyi today in the commercial hub of Yangon, followed by a joint press conference.

Myanmar President Thein Sein hosted the heads of the other nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc for an annual summit on Wednesday.

Asean was then joined by Obama and leaders from Japan, China, India, Australia, China, Russia, South Korea and New Zealand for the East Asia summit yesterday.

Obama will travel to Australia today for the G20 summit.

Source: The Daily Star

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