Violence against Muslims threatening Myanmar reforms: U.N. envoy

UNITED NATIONS Thu Oct 24, 2013 7:22pm EDT

Rohingya Muslim women look out from their home at Aung Mingalar quarter in Sittwe August 13, 2013. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Rohingya Muslim women look out from their home at Aung Mingalar quarter in Sittwe August 13, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Violence against a Muslim minority in Myanmar is feeding a wider anti-Muslim feeling that poses a serious threat to the country's dramatic economic and political reforms as it emerges from half a century of military rule, a U.N. envoy said on Thursday.

The government says at least 192 people were killed in June and October 2012 clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, most of whom Myanmar deem illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite roots going back generations.

The clashes led to unrest elsewhere in the country, where other groups of Muslims have been targeted, including Kamans, who are of different ethnicity from Rohingyas. An estimated 5 percent of Myanmar's population of about 60 million is Muslim.

"The president (Thein Sein) has made some commendable public speeches in which he has emphasized the need for trust, respect and compassion between people of different faiths and ethnic groups in Myanmar," said Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation in human rights in Myanmar.

"However, more needs to be done by the government to tackle the spread of discriminatory views and to protect vulnerable minority communities," he told the U.N. General Assembly's Third Committee, which deals with human rights issues.

Thein Sein heads a quasi-civilian government installed in 2011 after Myanmar's military stepped aside. Under his reforms, opposition leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, has been allowed back into politics and has made a number of visits abroad.

"In our view the recent dramatic democratic changes in Myanmar were a clear demonstration of the changes of mindset in the government," a representative of the Myanmar U.N. mission told the Third Committee. Myanmar is also known as Burma.

"At the critical time of democratic transition no country is immune from challenges. Myanmar went through unfortunate communal violence in Rakhine state sparked by a brutal crime. We very much regret loss of life and property caused to both communities," he said.

The violence in northern Rakhine State, one of Myanmar's poorest regions that is home to 1 million mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims, has continued this year. Dozens more have been killed and 140,000, mostly Rohingya, have been left homeless.

"The situation in Rakhine State has fed a wider anti-Muslim narrative in Myanmar, which is posing one of the most serious threats to the reform process," Quintana said. "Rakhine State remains in a situation of profound crisis."

"The underlying issue of discrimination against Muslim and particularly Rohingya populations remains unaddressed," he said. "Allegations of gross violations since the violence erupted last June, including by state security personnel, remains unaddressed."

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Eric Walsh)