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Suu Kyi Calls for Clarity on Myanmar Citizenship After Fighting

Myanmar's Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi
Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them,” Suu Kyi told reporters in Geneva today when asked if Rohingyas should be granted Myanmar citizenship. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Myanmar needs to clarify citizenship laws and carefully police its borders in the wake of clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims that have killed dozens, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said.

Myanmar President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency on June 10 in western Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh in a bid to end religious and ethnic clashes that erupted a week earlier. Rohingyas have been denied citizenship and face restrictions moving around the country.

“We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them,” Suu Kyi told reporters in Geneva today when asked if Rohingyas should be granted Myanmar citizenship. “All those who are entitled to citizenship should be treated as full citizens deserving all the rights that must be given to them.”

The clashes in western Myanmar highlight the difficulty in unifying the country of 64 million people even after a military junta that kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years shifted to democracy. The Rohingyas are not among Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups and those fleeing this month’s violence have also been denied entry into neighboring Bangladesh.

‘Delicacy and Sensitivity’

The conflict in Rakhine “will have to be handled with delicacy and sensitivity,” Suu Kyi said on her first trip to Europe since 1988. “We need the cooperation of all people concerned to regain the peace that we want for our country.”

The unrest began after an alleged rape prompted a mob of about 300 Rakhine Buddhists to murder 10 Muslims on June 3, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. Myanmar imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in four towns in Rakhine and prohibited more than five people from gathering in public areas at a time, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

Rohingyas, Sunni Muslims who are descended from Arab traders, are prevented from obtaining citizenship and traveling freely throughout Myanmar, according to Human Rights Watch. About 800,000 Rohingyas live in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and 200,000 are in Bangladesh, the group estimates.

The U.S. State Department has linked the Muslim minority to designated terrorist organization Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami/Bangladesh, which it said in a 2010 report “had trained and fielded operatives in Burma to fight on behalf of the Rohingya.” Bangladesh banned the group in 2005, the report said.


Last year Eric Schwartz, a deputy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called Rohingyas he visited in Bangladesh refugee camps “victims guilty of nothing other than a desire to flee repression and create a better life for themselves.” Clinton on June 11 said Rohingyas should be included in talks to halt the violence.

Bangladesh saw influxes of about 250,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in 1978 and in the early 1990s, followed by repatriation efforts “that were not wholly voluntary,” the UNHCR’s policy development and evaluation service said in a December report.

“One of the greatest problems comes from the fear on both sides of the border, that is to say Bangladesh as well as Burma, that there will be illegal immigrants crossing all the time,” Suu Kyi said, referring to her country by its former name. “This is due to the porous border. We need more responsible, uncorrupt border vigilance.”

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