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In a statement issued on Thursday, the Chief Minister of Arakan State, Maung Maung Ohn, criticised UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon for his use of the term Rohingya at a press conference the day before at the 25th ASEAN Summit in Naypyidaw.
“While I can understand your intentional and desire to promote the rights of the minorities, lending the stature of your office to this highly volatile debate in such a public manner can have lasting detrimental impact on our ability to do the work needed on the ground to bring the communities together,” he warned Ban in a letter.
“I am concerned that your statement yesterday could further inflame local sentiment and undo previous gains we have achieved, which is very unfortunate given the timing and opportunities presented to us,” he said.
The Burmese government has long refused to acknowledge the term “Rohingya”. In official parlance, they are referred to as “Bengalis”, which most self-identified Rohingya feel is derogatory as it implies origins in neighbouring Bangladesh despite the presence of their ancestors in Burma for generations.
Maung Maung Ohn, formerly Burma’s deputy minister of border affairs, was appointed to Arakan State’s highest office in June, replacing Hla Maung Tin, an ethnic Arakanese.
“The international community’s insistence on the use of the term “Rohingya” has alienated the Rakhine population and further fueled their distrust of all the United Nations agencies and international organizations such as MSF that are providing much needed assistance inside Rakhine [Arakan] state,” Maung Maung Ohn said.
In March, aid organisation Medicins Sans Frontières (MSF) was forced to suspend operations in the state following accusations of bias towards Rohingyas in its aid delivery. Later that month, a host of UN agencies and other aid providers were evacuated from the state capital, Sittwe, after riots that targeted their offices and homes.
Although the organisation received preliminary authorisation to resume its activities in July, it has not yet been allowed to do so, raising fears that the current spotlight on Rohingya issues will prompt continued restrictions on humanitarian access.
“We have not received the final formal authorisation to [resume operations] at this time, despite assurances, and would strongly encourage the authorities to provide this in the very near future, enabling us to resume our medical activities without further delay,” said Reshma Adatia, MSF operations advisor for Myanmar in Amsterdam.
Most of the roughly one million Rohingyas that live in Arakan State have no citizenship rights under Burma’s draconian 1982 Citizenship Law. A pilot program launched by the government under the “Rakhine Action Plan” for the development of the state offers some Rohingyas the possibility attaining “naturalised,” second-class citizenship, but they would be forced to renounce their Rohingya identity in order to be deemed eligible.
US President Barack Obama, who is currently in Naypyidaw, expressed his concern on the government’s mistreatment of “of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities” to the Irrawaddy magazine just before his visit, claiming that, despite some improvements, “there has been a slowdown and backsliding in reforms”.
“One of the main messages that I’ll deliver on this visit is that the government of Myanmar has a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in the country, and that the fundamental human rights and freedoms of all people should be respected,” Obama said.