Rohingya Leader Calls for Talks with Myanmar Government, Rakhines

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by Khin Maung Soe

A leader of the minority Rohingya Muslim community in western Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state has called for a meeting between representatives of his group, local ethnic Buddhists and the government to put an end to deadly clashes in the region.

Abu Tahay, chairman of the Union Nationals Development Party (UNDP), said the three groups should include an international arbitrator to independently judge on issues that have led to clashes between members of his minority group and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, which last year left nearly 200 dead and 140,000 displaced.

“We need a group that can exert influence on both communities, such as an international intermediation group,” Abu Tahay told RFA’s Myanmar Service in an interview in Washington on Tuesday.

“If so, this group could decide on the arguments. It would create a situation in which the two communities can live together if the government, ethnic Rakhine leaders and Rohingya leaders sit together and discuss these issues.”

Abu Tahay arrived in the U.S. on Aug. 10 as one of eight religious and civil society leaders selected by the American Embassy in Myanmar to participate in a three-week program to learn about the role that community leaders play in addressing ethnic and religious differences.

The program includes stops in Washington, Boston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, and visits to the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as institutes that deal with conflict management and human rights.

Abu Tahay said that addressing the issues of Rohingya citizenship and identity are essential to ending the violence in Rakhine, where tensions between Buddhists and Muslims remain high.

“There are two issues that are not very difficult to solve,” the UNDP chairman said.

“One is identity for the Rohingyas and the other is citizenship for the Rohingyas,” he said, referring to a long-held conviction in Myanmar that members of the ethnic minority—commonly referred to as “Bengalis”—have illegally immigrated from neighboring Bangladesh.

Around 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas live in Rakhine state but most of them, according to rights groups, have been denied citizenship and the social benefits that go with it.

The U.N. considers the Rohingyas to be among the world’s most persecuted minorities.

Citizenship law

Myanmar’s government has said that it will grant citizenship to any Rohingya “who meets legal requirements according to the 1982 citizenship law,” which only recognizes those families which had settled in the country before independence from Britain in 1948.

But Abu Tahay said that the Rohingyas had been officially recognized as a nationality in Myanmar before the law was introduced during the era of the former military junta, which ceded power to reformist President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government in 2011.

“We cannot say that Rohingyas are not citizens because of the 1982 citizenship law. According to the citizenship law before 1982, Rohingyas had lived in Myanmar as citizens,” he said.

“We can’t amend this retroactively.”

Abu Tahay said that according to previous censuses “there is no proof that Rohingyas came into Myanmar from other countries” and that the government likely assumes that members of the group are from Bangladesh because of cultural similarities that overlap the border region.

He also called on the government of Rakhine state to abolish laws that specifically target his minority, including restrictions on the number of children in Rohingya families, required permission for travel, blocks preventing Rohingyas from certain studies and special approval for marriages, which he said were relics of the junta regime.

Violence between Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and the country’s Muslim minority, which accounts for some 4 percent of the country's 60-million population, have threatened to derail Thein Sein’s plans for national reconciliation and democracy following nearly five decades of military rule.

Earlier this week, ethnic Rakhines protested against a visit by U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Tomas Ojea Quintana, calling his reports on ethnic violence in the region “one-sided” in favor of Rohingyas.

Quintana, who is in the middle of a 10-day trip to Myanmar that includes tours of areas that were among the worst hit by the communal fighting, responded that he remains impartial and that his work was based on a balanced approach.

Rights groups maintain that the Rohingyas suffered the brunt of last year’s deadly clashes.

Reported by Khin Maung Soe. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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