Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (formerly Burma) said Monday that her nation's citizenship laws underlie the ethnic tensions that have recently boiled over into mass sectarian violence in the western part of the country.
Rohingya Muslims, a minority population in Rakhine state labeled by the government as illegal settlers from Bangladesh, have clashed with the dominant Rakhine Buddhists in a wave of attacks that have left at least 50 people dead in the past month and displaced thousands more.
If we were very clear as to who are the citizens of the country, under citizenship laws, then there wouldn't be the problem that is always coming up, that there are accusations ... that some people do not belong in Bangladesh, or some people do not belong in Burma, Suu Kyi said at a news conference.
The recent violence was sparked by the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman last month, which was blamed on three Rohingya men. A mob seeking revenge swarmed a bus carrying Rohingya passengers, dragging 10 men out and beating them to death. The three men accused of the initial crime have since been arrested, and one has died in custody.
Hostilities have escalated in the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, where at least 25 deaths have been reported amid gunfire and burning buildings. Having become a targeted group for attacks, thousands of Rohingyas have attempted to flee Myanmar, most to neighboring Bangladesh, only to be turned away.
Myanmar does not recognize the more than 800,000 Rohingya people estimated to be living within its borders among its official ethnic minority groups, claiming that they only recently began crossing the border illegally from Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government does not legally recognize the Rohingya people either, despite an estimated 400,000 of them living as unofficial refugees there, leaving them stateless.
Suu Kyi has found herself in a delicate position, facing mounting domestic prejudice against the Rohingya while trying to uphold a position of compassion and respect for human rights, having herself been a victim of the military regime that only began its transition to a civilian government in 2010.
President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency June 10 and sent the military in to quell the unrest in Rakhine, raising concerns about a violent crackdown, but Suu Kyi did not comment on the government response.
Carefully parsing her words, Suu Kyi emphasized that Myanmar needed to clarify its citizenship laws and did not advocate one way or the other for granting legal status to the Rohingya.
There are some who say that some of those who claim to be Rohingyas aren't the ones actually native to Burma, but have just come over recently from Bangladesh, Suu Kyi said. On the other hand Bangladesh says no, they don't want them as refugees because they are not native to Bangladesh but come from Burma.
The Rohingya people are said to be of mixed ancestry, descended from Arab traders who sailed the coasts of the Indian Ocean centuries ago and intermingled with native Bengali and Rakhine populations.
The Burmese government has rejected this historical account, claiming that Rohingyas have migrated from Bangladesh only within the past few decades despite many of them having lived in Myanmar for generations.
When Myanmar (as Burma) gained independence from Britain in 1947, the Rohingya people were not recognized as one of the country's official ethnic groups and were subsequently excluded from a 1982 citizenship act.
Suu Kyi argues that the current citizenship laws are unclear and make it difficult to resolve the issue of the Rohingya people's legal status, suggesting that a definitive designation would help resolve the local conflict.