NEW YORK (AP) — Sectarian violence between Buddhists and minority Muslims has thrown up "an unfortunate and unexpected challenge" in Myanmar's transition to democracy, the nation's foreign minister said Tuesday, but denied the unrest has been fueled by racism.
Wunna Maung Lwin told The Associated Press in an interview that the former pariah state's shift from military rule remained on track. He said next year's pivotal elections would be free and fair, but he wouldn't comment on whether opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would be able to run for president.
The foreign minister also said his government has started a "verification process" in strife-torn Rakhine State to enable stateless Rohingya Muslims who have been in Myanmar for three generations to become naturalized citizens. But he stressed that the government was still not recognizing Rohingya as a group.
The government describes the estimated 1.3 million Rohingya as "Bengali," a term which many members of the minority group object to strongly, as it implies they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, a London-based activist group, also said he was concerned that those who do not accept that classification will be deemed refugees who should be sent to a third country.
The foreign minister said his government was still considering what would happen to those who don't meet the citizenship requirements of Myanmar's 1982 immigration law which requires "conclusive evidence" a person's family has been in Myanmar since before independence from Britain in 1948. Rights activists say the law is discriminatory.
"It's an apartheid law," said Mohamad Yusof, the president of New York-based Rohingya Concern International, who was leading about two dozen Rohingya activists protesting in front of the United Nations on Tuesday.
The protesters denounced the verification process, saying they were concerned it would force the Rohingya to identify as Bengali.
"This verification process is totally against international law and does not apply to the Rohingya. It is meant to exclude the Rohingya people," said Shoaukhat Kyaw Soe Aung, president of the Milwaukee-based Rohingya American Society.
A spokesman for the United Nations secretary-general said Tuesday that the U.N. hopes the verification process will be done according to human rights principles. "It is hoped that a significant number of the members of the Rohingya community currently in the camps, and outside, will be eligible for citizenship," Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
Tun Khin predicted few Rohingya would have the required documentation and that even more would end up in camps.
Buddhist mob attacks against Muslims have sparked fears that religious intolerance is undermining Myanmar's democratic reforms. More than 140,000 Rohingya have been trapped in crowded camps since extremist mobs began chasing them from their homes two years ago, killing up to 280 people. The sectarian violence has spread to other parts of the country.
The foreign minister described the communal unrest as "an unfortunate and unexpected challenge that we have been facing in our transition."
"This has created a lot of international attention because some of the elements have portrayed that as religious discrimination or discrimination among the ethnic minorities, which is not true," he said. He blamed criminality for the unrest.
The foreign minister has been attending the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations. On Monday, he urged the world against "jumping to conclusions" about the situation in Rakhine, which has drawn global condemnation. He said his Southeast Asian state should be removed from the U.N. Human Rights Council's agenda.
International excitement over political changes in Myanmar since 2012, when former prisoner of conscience Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, have been tempered by growing concerns over whether there will be genuine civilian rule in the country also known as Burma. The military was in direct command for the previous five decades.
Wunna Maung Lwin maintained the reforms were gaining momentum.
But he would not comment directly on the prospects, widely seen as diminishing, for reform of a provision in the military-era constitution that bars Suu Kyi from running for president because she has sons with British citizenship. The minister said the election would be open to those who meet the eligibility requirements.
"I don't think the election is meant for only one individual or a person," the foreign minister said. "We do not wish to recommend a particular individual or person, whether he or she may run or not."
Associated Press writer Alexandra Olson at the United Nations contributed to this story.