By Ayee Macaraig
UNITED NATIONS – The head of the United Nations called on Myanmar to address the exclusion of Rohingya Muslims from a controversial census, warning that its much-vaunted reform process will suffer if root causes remain unresolved.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon commented on Myanmar’s first census in 30 years, widely criticized for excluding people who identified themselves as “Rohingya,” a religious minority in the Buddhist-majority nation.
“For the first time in decades, Myanmar will have data to help address key social indicators. However, some segments of the population were excluded from this vital census especially in Kachin and Rakhine states. These issues will need to be addressed in a genuinely inclusive and constructive way in the near future,” said Ban on Friday, September 26.
The UN chief was speaking at the Meeting of the Partnership Group on Myanmar held in New York at the sidelines of the annual debate of the UN General Assembly.
The UN has described the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The Rohingya live under apartheid-like conditions, and need to ask permission to move from their villages or camps after they were displaced in deadly clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012, Reuters said.
Ban expressed concern about their condition in camps, calling it “precarious and unsustainable.”
“I remain deeply troubled by the communal situation in Rakhine and in other parts of the country, the continued polarization between the communities as well as the possible eruption of conflict between Buddhists and Muslims. If the underlying causes are left unresolved, the reform process will suffer.”
Ban was referring to the political and economic reforms the country’s former military junta undertook in 2011 after 5 decades of military rule. The international community praised the reforms, restoring ties and aid to the once hermit Southeast Asian nation. (READ: Forward, back goes Myanmar transition)
Yet Ban said that Myanmar cannot progress while overlooking the plight of the Rohingya.
“I highlight the need to address comprehensively the issue of status and citizenship of the Muslim population in Rakhine State – referred to by the Government as ‘Bengalis’ – but known as ‘Rohingya’ by that population itself and much of the world.”
Myanmar officials use the term Bengali to imply that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh even if many of them lived in Myanmar for centuries.
Ban’s statement comes even after the UN itself drew criticism for the census that the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) helped conduct. Human Rights Watch said UNFPA did not adequately respond to the issue.
UNFPA said it was “deeply concerned” that Myanmar’s government violated the agreement to conduct the census with each person being able to declare what ethnicity he or she belongs to, in accordance with international standards.
Deeper ties with ASEAN
Ban also welcomed the agreement aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) signed with Myanmar to work again in Rakhine state, months after the government forced it out in February, and accused it of being biased in favor of the Rohingya. The departure left half a million Rohingya Muslims without access to health care.
“We look forward to the early presence of MSF on the ground. The various humanitarian agencies and the United Nations must work together to deliver increased development and humanitarian assistance to all sections of the population in an impartial and equitable manner,” Ban said.
Still, the Secretary-General commended Myanmar’s efforts to “implement an ambitious reform agenda,” citing its current chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an example.
The UN and ASEAN held a ministerial meeting at the UN Headquarters in New York also on Friday to strengthen the partnership between the two organizations. Ban, foreign ministers from ASEAN member-states, and ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh attended the event.
In a joint statement, the UN and ASEAN said they agreed to work together on integrated regional connectivity, countering radicalism and extremism, transnational crime, cybercrime and the spread of communicable diseases like the Ebola virus.
Other issues discussed were achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals, the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, information sharing and capacity building in maritime security, peacekeeping, and countering terrorism.
ASEAN foreign ministers also welcomed the establishment of a UN liaison presence in Jakarta.
The regional bloc and the UN are preparing for the 6th ASEAN-UN Summit to be held in November in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw alongside the ASEAN Summit.
“The United Nations expressed support for ASEAN’s efforts towards the realization of the ASEAN Community by 2015 and ASEAN’s central role in evolving regional architecture,” read the statement. – Rappler.com
Rappler multimedia reporter Ayee Macaraig is a 2014 fellow of the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists. She is in New York to cover the UN General Assembly, foreign policy, diplomacy, and world events.