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Obama in bind over Myanmar’s Rohingya

November 13, 2014

National Multimedia

YANGON (DPA) – As Barack Obama arrives in Myanmar on Wednesday, thousands of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority are fleeing every week from the country’s western shore.


US President Barack Obama


They are escaping the clashes with the country’s national majority Buddhists in Rakhine State that erupted in 2012 after decades of simmering tensions, and a year after the shift from military rule to a nominal democracy.


Obama, who became the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar in2012, telephoned his counterpart Thein Sein ahead of his trip, demanding more action to resolve the sectarian violence and repression of the 1-million-strong Rohingya community. But he is under pressure to do more when he visits for the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from Wednesday.


Obama must raise the issue at this “critical crossroad,” said Rohingya political leader Kyaw Min, the president of the small Human Rights and Democracy Party. “Either we will be targeted to total annihilation, or we will get the right to citizenship as indigenous people that we enjoyed until1982,” he told DPA.


Legislation that year excluded the Rohingya from the list of Myanmar’s ethnic groups whose members are eligible for citizenship.


“The Obama visit will be a decisive factor,” Kyaw Min said. If America does not attach serious importance to the issue of Rohingya, this government will finish the Rohingya here. “There is little sign of a common ground for reconciliation. In a recent census, the government said it would accept as potential citizens any who took the ethnic label “Bengali.”


But most of the community insist on the recognition of the name Rohingya, saying an association with Bangladesh could limit their status to the more restrictive naturalised, not full citizenship.


This insistence was causing a “deadlock,” Rakhine politician Oo Hla Saw said.


“If the Muslim community want citizenship, why are they being so narrow about the term? It doesn’t really matter,” said the member of the Arakan National Party (ANP).


The government has promised to act against those persecuting the Rohingya, but measures have been limited, amid limited support for the ethnic minority amid the Buddhist majority nationwide. Obama may find himself unable to push Thein Sein on the issue as hard as pro-Rohingya activists and rights groups might wish.


The US needs to remain engaged with Myanmar’s leaders if it is to build effective economic ties, help the country transition to democratic rule, and contribute to ending the decades of conflict with several ethnic armed groups, according to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.


Obama should raise the concerns about Rakhine State, but without jeopardising working relations, the group wrote in a report last month.


“The United States need to stay very actively engaged and not be seen as pausing or reversing course, despite some calls in Congress to reduce engagement in response to apparent ’backsliding’ on reforms,”the report said.”


The United States is critical to balancing China’s influence (in Myanmar), especially in regard to any eventual ceasefire agreement and follow-on political dialogue” with the ethnic armed groups, it said.


“The United States has multiple ongoing investments that are showing results, bilaterally and multilaterally. Only if these are carried forward will we see their full benefit.”