UN envoy Vijay Nambiar (Photo AP)
By Edith M. Lederer
May 2, 2014
NEW YORK — The top U.N. envoy on Myanmar said Thursday the most pressing priority for Muslims in violence-torn Rakhine state, who are considered illegal immigrants, is to get on the path to citizenship.
Vijay Nambiar, the secretary-general’s special adviser on Myanmar, warned in a speech to the International Peace Institute that unless this is done the security of the Rohingya Muslims will remain threatened, “and that is sure to affect the international reputation of the country.”
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation which only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule, considers the Rohingya Muslims to be immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship and related rights, even though many were born to families who arrived in the country generations ago.
In the last two years members of the religious minority have been the target of bloody attacks by Buddhist mobs. Up to 280 people have been killed and another 140,000 forced to flee their home. Most are now living in hot, dirty camps on the outskirts of the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe.
Myanmar finished taking its first census in 30 years three weeks ago but it is unlikely most Muslims were counted because the government said they would not be allowed to identify themselves as Rohingyas on the form. It said they would only be counted if they wrote “Bengali.”
Nambiar said the status of Rakhine’s Muslim population remains unaddressed despite many promises by government authorities for early action to provide temporary identity certificates, register new births, and allow the Rohingyas to move freely.
“The utmost necessity now for the Muslim community in Rakhine,” he said, is to have their status verified and regularized, and to obtain a National Registration Card from the government and then citizenship which would enable the Rohingyas to travel throughout the country and get passports to go abroad.
Nambiar said there are many elements in the Muslim community in Rakhine who are willing to go incrementally in this direction.
“I think that is a better way towards realizing immediate objectives, and then gradually move towards using that status to establish a political constituency, and that’s what would happen in any democratic process,” he said.
Nambiar said that in many ways the development of democracy “sharpened dangerously” the polarization between Buddhist and Muslim communities, resulting in violent attacks which have raised serious questions about whether the country’s ongoing reform process will be undermined.
In both communities, he said, “there is a sense of ‘victimhood'” — the Muslims have suffered persecution and discrimination at the hands of the majority Buddhist community while the Buddhists watch what they believe is “disproportionate global support” for Muslims from communities across the world.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has suggested on several occasions that President Thein Sein, the speaker of parliament and opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi issue a joint statement against the violence, hate speech, and intolerance and send a larger message of harmony but “even that has not been possible,” Nambiar said.
Two days ago, he said, Myanmar’s vice president did issue a statement saying attacks in Rakhine over the past two months have “deeply affected the prestige and reputation of the country” and could seriously affect the country’s ongoing reforms if they continue.
“Coming from such a senior level, I think this is a recognition that the country and the government is interested in taking serious action to address this question,” Nambiar said. “Whether or not it will actually step up is the real issue — and upon that I think will depend the credibility of the government as it proceeds.”