US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell returned from a fact-finding mission to Rakhine State in Burma this week and expressed “great concern” for the humanitarian situation involving ethnic Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas.
“Broad swathes of both communities have been affected, and the humanitarian situation remains of great concern,” the US Embassy in Rangoon said in a statement after the weekend visit by a group led by newly appointed ambassador Mitchell, senior State Department official Joseph Yun and others.
“Going forward, it will be important to address the urgent needs, while also laying the groundwork for a long-term, sustainable and just solution” to the conflict, the embassy said.
The visit came as Burmese President Thein Sein dispatched a 25-member independent commission to investigate the circumstances under which violence erupted between the two communities in June, killing 80 people and leaving tens of thousands displaced.
A delegation from the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was also in Burma to visit the scene of the clashes, which sparked international allegations of human rights violations against the Rohingya, a group regarded by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
The US Embassy also stressed in the statement the need for a long-term solution to ethnic strife in the area, listing as key challenges security and stability, freedom of movement, protection for local residents, and humanitarian access.
Mitchell’s delegation spent two days in Rakhine and met with Muslims, Buddhists, and members of NGOs in Sittwe, the capital of the state, and with villagers around Maungdaw, one of the towns ravaged by the violence, according to a story on the Radio Free Asia (RFA) website on Tuesday.
Local residents said the delegation discussed the decades-old tensions between Rakhines, who form a majority in the state, and Rohingyas, who are regarded in Burma as immigrants from Bangladesh and referred to as “Bengalis” even though they have lived there for generations.
One Muslim man in Sittwe’s Aung Mingalar district said that Yun and others in the delegation asked him why over the decades some members of his family were given white cards—temporary registration cards that cannot be used to claim citizenship —while others were not.
“He asked me, ‘Based on the population census from this village, in 1942, it was written that Rohingya Muslims and their descendants are counted as Bengalis and are to receive the white card, so why were your children counted as Bengali after marrying Rohingyas?” he said.
Aria Wuntha, the abbot of the Buddhist Shwe Zedi Monastery in Sittwe who met with members of the delegation warned the officials that long-running tensions between Rakhines and Rohingyas could easily erupt again.
“Since 1942 until today, there have been six major conflicts between Rakhine and Bengalis [Rohingyas], and another conflict could break out at any point. That's what I told them.”
He said he felt the conflict was tied to Rakhines feeling that they were being squeezed out of their territory by Rohingya and other populations.
A fact-finding team from the Saudi Arabia-based OIC, the world’s largest Muslim body, arrived in Burma on Thursday for a 10-day visit to look into the issue, RFA said.
The organization has expressed concern about rights violations against the Rohingya and has said it will bring up the team’s findings at the upcoming meeting of the UN General Assembly.
In August, Thein Sein said in a rare conciliatory move that the OIC would be allowed to visit Rakhine.
On Monday, Burmese government spokesman Ko Ko Hlaing, welcomed the OIC visit as a way to clear up “misperceptions,” the Associated Press reported.
“The Muslim world has expressed concern ... mainly because of misinformation,” Ko Ko Hlaing said.
The delegation’s visit comes ahead of a planned trip in October by OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.
In a speech to OIC senior officials on Sunday, Ihsanoglu said the group condemned the “heinous behavior” of the Burmese government against the Rohingya.
The US delegation included the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs' Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Joseph Yun; Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs' Deputy Assistant Secretary Alyssa Ayres; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor's Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan Baer; Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration's Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Clements. Newly arrived USAID Rangoon Mission Director Chris Milligan joined the delegation on their visit.
In Nay Pyi Taw, the delegation met with Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and Minister of the Office of the President Aung Min.
On Sept. 10, Yun, Ayres, Baer, and Clements departed for Bangladesh to continue consultations.