UNITED NATIONS — Stability in Myanmar’s most sensitive region can’t be achieved unless it addresses the issue of citizenship for minority Rohingya Muslims, the United Nations secretary-general warned its authorities Friday.
Ban Ki-moon told a delegation from the Southeast Asian country that the U.N. has seen “already troubling signs of ethnic and religious differences being exploited” as elections approach later this year.
The predominantly Buddhist nation recently emerged from a half-century of military rule, but it has been shaken by violence between Buddhists and Muslims in recent years that left at least 280 people dead and 140,000 homeless. Most of the displaced are Muslims confined to squalid camps in in the western state of Rakhine.
Most Rohingya are not citizens, and prejudice against them is high. The government calls them Bengali and generally regards them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, even though many were born in Myanmar.
The tensions “could be seriously destabilizing” and could jeopardize the country’s efforts to reform, Ban said.
Myanmar’s president this year declared that a system of temporary identification cards, popularly called “white cards,” for people seeking citizenship would become invalid at the end of March. That negated an earlier decision that would have allowed card holders to vote.
The Myanmar government has rejected demands for citizenship for the Rohingya but has expressed a willingness to consider citizenship for those who will identify as Bengali.
The country’s 1982 citizenship law says members of any officially recognized minority must be able to prove their ancestors lived in Burma before the British invaded Rakhine in 1823.
The British occupation of Rakhine prompted a large migration of Muslims into the area from neighboring Chittagong, then part of British-ruled India and now located in modern-day Bangladesh.
Many of Myanmar’s hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims say their ancestors have lived in Burma for generations. But the impoverished minority group lacks the documentation to prove it.
Ban said Friday that he recently spoke with President Thein Sein and to express his concern that the lack “swift action to regularize the status of White Card holders will be seen as institutionalized discrimination.”
The U.N. chief called the upcoming elections an important milestone in the country’s transition but stressed that they must be inclusive. He said he asked Thein Sein to take urgent action to address the identification issue before the election.