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WASHINGTON: The United States called for Myanmar and Bangladesh to protect the rights of the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group that has faced wide discrimination, but acknowledged a tough task ahead.
Violence that broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in June has left almost 90 people dead from the Rohingya and majority Buddhist community, and neighbouring Bangladesh has barred new refugees from entering.
A team of four US officials travelled to the two countries last month to meet officials and civil society representatives as they assessed the conditions of the Rohingya, whom Myanmar does not consider to be citizens.
Kelly Clements, deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said that she and her colleagues spoke to authorities in Myanmar about “a path to citizenship for those Rohingya with claims.”
“Peace is possible in Rakhine state only through economic development, poverty alleviation and ensuring basic rights for residents,” she told an event held by the Open Society Foundations and Refugees International.
The 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, speak a dialect similar to one in Bangladesh and are seen by many Burmese as illegal immigrants.
Home to some 300,000 Rohingya, Bangladesh has barred foreign charities from assistance for fear that they would encourage a new influx of refugees.
Clements said that the United States has been a “steadfast” supporter of aid to Bangladesh and hoped that the country would assist Rohingya on its soil, most of whom are undocumented.
“We have urged the government of Bangladesh to register this population and improve their living conditions, as well as those of the Bangladeshi community that hosts them,” she said.
But Clements, who has worked on the Rohingya issue for two decades, said she saw growing needs among the community with rising malnutrition rates and more parents pulling children from school to earn money.
“Sadly, solutions to this protracted displacement appear increasingly elusive,” she said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the Rohingya mission as the United States seeks to encourage dramatic recent reforms in Myanmar, whose President Thein Sein has freed prisoners, eased censorship and reached out to the ethnic rebels.
Opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of the past two decades under house arrest, has been elected to parliament and paid a landmark visit to Washington last month.