YANGON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama called on Friday for Myanmar to end discrimination against Rohingya people, urging in his strongest comments on the persecuted Muslim minority that the government grant them equal rights.
Most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million ethnic Rohingya Muslims are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine state in the west of the predominantly Buddhist country. Almost 140,000 are in camps after being displaced in clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
Obama, in Myanmar for a regional summit, said legitimate government was based on “the recognition that all people are equal under the law”.
“Discrimination against a Rohingya or any other religious minority, I think, does not express the kind of country that Burma over the long term wants to be,” Obama told a news conference with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her lakeside home in the city of Yangon.
Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been notably quiet about the treatment of Rohingya.
Prejudice against the minority group is widespread in Myanmar and many people refer to them as Bengali, a term suggesting they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite having lived in the area for generations.
Suu Kyi urged Myanmar’s people “to learn to live in harmony” but refrained from naming any specific group.
The term Rohingya is highly charged in Myanmar and government officials denounced U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for uttering it at a news conference in the capital, Naypyitaw, on Wednesday.
“We always tell the U.N. that we do not accept their using this term every time we get a chance,” Deputy Foreign Minister Thant Kyaw told reporters the following day.
On Friday, the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper ran an open letter to Ban from Rakhine state chief minister Maung Maung Ohn, who expressed “deep disappointment” and said the international community’s use of the term had “alienated the Rakhine population”.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, said such comments reflected the government’s “hostile intent towards the Rohingya”.
“The right of an ethnic group to self-identify is a core human right, and Burmese ranging from President Thein Sein to Aung San Suu Kyi need to recognize that fact if they are serious about human rights and reconciliation in their ethnically diverse nation,” he told Reuters.
Editing by Robert Birsel