Obama urged to press Myanmar on Rohingya citizenship

Source: Alertnet // Emma Batha

A girl joins others collecting pieces of metal from the rubble of a neighbourhood in Pauktaw township, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, that was burned in recent violence October 27, 2012. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Emma Batha

LONDON (AlertNet) –  U.S. President Barack Obama must press Myanmar to give citizenship to hundreds of thousands of stateless Rohingya in the west of the country where ethnic bloodshed has caused massive displacement, Refugees International says.

Obama, who will visit Myanmar on Nov. 19, should also urge Myanmar’s leaders to provide protection to everyone affected by the recent explosion of violence in Rakhine State and end restrictions on access for aid agencies, the campaign group added.

Melanie Teff, a senior advocate with Refugees International who recently visited Rakhine, warned that the crisis could derail Myanmar’s tentative transition to democracy after half a century of military rule.

Scores of people were killed and at least 75,000 uprooted from their homes when clashes erupted in June between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine. Another 35,000 were displaced by violence in October.

White House officials have said Obama – the first serving U.S. president to visit Myanmar – will press leaders to restore calm and to bring the instigators of the violence to justice.

There are an estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Rakhine State. Many have lived there for generations but Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority government regards them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship.

They are officially stateless and the United Nations calls them “virtually friendless”.

“Many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations,” Teff said. “The government must provide citizenship to all Rohingya born in Myanmar or with genuine links to the country, as well as their descendants – in line with international law.”

Teff said it was absurd to suggest there had been large-scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh during the military junta’s hardline rule.

“There is also the question of why would people want to come into a situation where they are treated quite so badly,” she added.

The Rohingya have suffered decades of persecution in Rakhine State, which is the second poorest state in Myanmar with acute rates of malnutrition and a stagnant economy.

Teff said she hoped Obama would also raise the issue with Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who heads the Rule of Law Committee responsible for reviewing the 1982 Citizenship Law that rendered the Rohingya stateless.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for championing democracy, has been criticised by rights groups for not speaking out on the Rohingya.

“One hopes that even if she is not taking a public stand on this that she will ensure that the law is revised in line with international standards on rights to nationality – that’s my key ask of her,” Teff added.

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