Rohingya Muslim leaders appealed on Wednesday to a visiting U.S. State Department official to press the Myanmar government to grant basic rights, including citizenship and freedom of movement, to members of the ethnic minority group who live in the vicinity of Rakhine state's capital Sittwe, a Muslim who was part of the group said.
Richard Albright, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state who is responsible for humanitarian assistance programs in Asia, is visiting the ethnically and religiously divided region with U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel.
The Rohingya leaders told the two diplomats during a stop in Thet Kae Pyin village that the Myanmar government is focusing on providing National Verification Cards (NVCs) to the Rohingya, and they expressed a desire to see the delayed process for citizenship applications pick up speed, said Maung Maung, who participated in the meeting.
The cards are the first step before the scrutinization of citizenship in accordance with the country's 1982 Citizenship Law, which defines citizenship based on ethnicity, thereby excluding the Rohingya, who are not included on the government's list of official ethnic groups. Though the NVCs do not guarantee citizenship, they allow holders to apply for citizenship at a later date.
The leaders also added that the government had said that recommendations by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by late former United Nations chief Kofi Annan are being implemented, though there have been few visible signs of this and authorities have been tightening travel restrictions on the Rohingya.
The advisory commission called for reviews of the country's Citizenship Law and an end to restrictions on the stateless minority to prevent further violence in the beleaguered multiethnic region. The recommendations in the panel's final report were issued in August 2017 after a year-long review of ethnic and religious strife in the western state.
The government of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who set up the commission, has said it has implemented 81 of the report's 88 recommendations.
Albright promised to raise the issue with Myanmar officials when he meets them in the capital Naypyidaw, Maung Maung said. There was no comment available from the U.S. delegation on the meetings in Sittwe.
The U.S. diplomatic team also met privately with members of the Arakan National Party, which represents the interests of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who live in the multiethnic state, at the party's headquarters in Sittwe.
To fulfill one of the advisory commission's recommendations, Myanmar has been shutting down camps that house Rohingya displaced by violence in Sittwe district and in two townships, where members of the group were confined following waves of clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims in the divided state in 2012.
A similar call
The call by the Rohingya leaders in Sittwe echoed demands made by a group of Rohingya leaders at refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh a week ago during a visit by Myint Thu, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In a letter handed to Myint Thu but addressed to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the Rohingya called for the Myanmar government to accept them as an official ethnic group and restore their full citizenship rights as two of several key conditions for their return to northern Rakhine under a repatriation program set to begin in mid-November.
They also called for the lifting of restrictions on their movement and on access to services such as health care and education.
The Rohingya maintain that they were recognized as an ethnic group in Myanmar with rights to full citizenship prior to the Citizenship Law.
In mid-November, Myanmar will begin taking back more than 2,260 Rohingya Muslim and Hindu refugees who fled to Bangladesh during a military crackdown in northern Rakhine state in 2017 as its first group of returnees under a bilateral repatriation deal made nearly a year ago.
The refugees were part of an exodus of 720,000 Rohingya who fled the crackdown, which the government deemed necessary to fight off attacks by Muslim militants in the region.
The U.N. and others have said that atrocities committed by the military amounted to ethnic cleansing and genocide, and they have further warned that conditions in the Buddhist-majority country, where the Rohingya are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and face systematic discrimination, are not yet ripe for the refugees' safe return.
The U.S. is among a handful of countries that have imposed sanctions on Myanmar over human rights abuses concerning the Rohingya.
In August, the U.S. imposed targeted sanctions against four Myanmar military and border guard commanders and two military units for their roles in ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya and human rights abuses against other ethnic minority groups.
The U.S. had previously blacklisted only General Maung Maung Soe, former head of the Myanmar Army's Western Command which oversaw Rakhine state, for human rights abuses committed by security forces under his direction. He was later fired by the military.
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