UNITED NATIONS – Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday it's crucial that Myanmar's government immediately reverse its longstanding policy and give Rohingya Muslims either nationality or legal status so they can lead normal lives and freely move, find jobs, and get an education.
Guterres cited the longstanding history of "discrimination, hopelessness and extreme poverty" in Myanmar's western Rakhine State and appealed to the country's civilian and military authorities to end the current violence.
"The grievances and unresolved plight of the Rohingya have festered for far too long and are becoming an undeniable factor in regional destabilization," he warned.
The Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in Rakhine has faced systematic persecution for decades at the hands of Myanmar's Buddhist majority, who consider most of them to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The military junta that ruled the nation for decades stripped them of their citizenship and rights.
The Rohingya were the targets of violence in 2012 that killed hundreds and drove about 140,000 people — predominantly Muslims — from their homes to camps for the internally displaced, where many remain in squalor.
The latest violence was sparked when insurgent fighters of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked government troops on Aug. 25. Myanmar soldiers retaliated with what they called "clearance operations" aimed at flushing insurgents out from Rohingya villages.
Guterres reiterated his condemnation of the recent attacks by the Rohingya insurgents.
But he said the U.N. is now receiving "constant reports of violence by Myanmar's security forces, including indiscriminate attacks."
"Nearly 125,000 people — victims of unbearable suffering and desperation — have sought refuge in Bangladesh," Guterres said, and many people have lost their lives trying to flee the violence.
He warned that "this will only further increase radicalization."
"The authorities in Myanmar must take determined action to put an end to this vicious cycle of violence and to provide security and assistance to all those in need," he said.
"It will be crucial to give the Muslims of Rakhine State either nationality or, at least for now, a legal status" that will allow them to have a normal life, including freedom of movement and access to labor markets, education and health services, Guterres said.
A day before the outbreak of the latest violence, a commission led by former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan recommended economic development and social justice to counter the deadly violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state.
The commission urged the government, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to act quickly and decisively, even in the face of public opposition, saying the situation was becoming more precarious. Suu Kyi, who established the commission, has largely looked the other way regarding the plight of the Rohingyas.
Guterres noted that the government has signaled its acceptance of the commission's recommendations and said they must be fully implemented.
Asked whether he was disappointed in Suu Kyi, the secretary-general said: "It's not a matter of being disappointed. I understand the complexity of the situation in Myanmar. We want a Myanmar that is democratic, but we also want a Myanmar where the Rohingya population will see their rights fully respected."