Myanmar Says Sectarian Violence Challenges Reforms
|Wunna Maung Lwin, Minister for Foreign Affairs for Myanmar, speaks during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)|
By Matthew Pennington
September 30, 2014
New York -- Sectarian violence between Buddhists and minority Muslims has thrown up "an unfortunate and unexpected challenge" in Myanmar's transition to democracy, the nation's foreign minister said Tuesday, but denied the unrest has been fueled by racism.
Wunna Maung Lwin told The Associated Press in an interview that the former pariah state's shift from military rule remained on track. He said next year's pivotal elections would be free and fair, but he wouldn't comment on whether opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would be able to run for president.
The foreign minister also said his government has started a "verification process" in strife-torn Rakhine State to enable stateless Rohingya Muslims who have been in Myanmar for three generations to become naturalized citizens. But he stressed that the government was still not recognizing Rohingya as a group.
The government describes the estimated 1.3 million Rohingya as "Bengali," a term which many members of the minority group object to strongly, as it implies they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, a London-based activist group, also said he was concerned that those who do not accept that classification will be deemed refugees who should be sent to a third country.
The foreign minister said his government was still considering what would happen to those who don't meet the citizenship requirements of Myanmar's 1982 immigration law which requires "conclusive evidence" a person's family has been in Myanmar since before independence from Britain in 1948. Rights activists say the law is discriminatory.
"It's an apartheid law," said Mohamad Yusof, the president of New York-based Rohingya Concern International, who was leading about two dozen Rohingya activists protesting in front of the United Nations on Tuesday.
The protesters denounced the verification process, saying they were concerned it would force the Rohingya to identify as Bengali.
"This verification process is totally against international law and does not apply to the Rohingya. It is meant to exclude the Rohingya people," said Shoaukhat Kyaw Soe Aung, president of the Milwaukee-based Rohingya American Society.
A spokesman for the United Nations secretary-general said Tuesday that the U.N. hopes the verification process will be done according to human rights principles. "It is hoped that a significant number of the members of the Rohingya community currently in the camps, and outside, will be eligible for citizenship," Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
Tun Khin predicted few Rohingya would have the required documentation and that even more would end up in camps.
Buddhist mob attacks against Muslims have sparked fears that religious intolerance is undermining Myanmar's democratic reforms. More than 140,000 Rohingya have been trapped in crowded camps since extremist mobs began chasing them from their homes two years ago, killing up to 280 people. The sectarian violence has spread to other parts of the country.
The foreign minister described the communal unrest as "an unfortunate and unexpected challenge that we have been facing in our transition."
"This has created a lot of international attention because some of the elements have portrayed that as religious discrimination or discrimination among the ethnic minorities, which is not true," he said. He blamed criminality for the unrest.