By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday urged Myanmar to address the citizenship status of Rohingya Muslims in the country's western Rakhine state ahead of a general election scheduled to be held later this year.
Almost 140,000 of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya, most of whom are stateless, remain displaced after deadly clashes with Buddhists in Rakhine in 2012.
"The international community is still deeply concerned about the situation in Rakhine," Ban told a gathering of countries called the "Partnership Group on Myanmar."
"Long-term stability in Rakhine will remain unattainable without comprehensively addressing the issue of status and citizenship of the Muslim populations," he said.
The Muslim Rohingya in the country formerly called Burma are at particular risk of abuse, having been subjected to restrictions on marriage, registration of births, and many other human rights violations, rights groups say.
"The communal situation in Rakhine and elsewhere remains fragile," Ban said. "There are already troubling signs of ethnic and religious differences being exploited in the run-up to the elections. The reform process could be jeopardized if the underlying causes of these tensions are left unaddressed."
Ban said he expressed "concern that continuing controversies on the race and religious bills as well as absence of swift action to regularize the status of white card holders will be seen as institutionalized discrimination."
"With general elections looming, the government must take urgent and practical measures to address these issues and their underlying causes," he added.
Myanmar's parliament voted in February to grant temporary identification called "white cards," mostly to Rohingya, so they could vote in a possible constitutional referendum, paving the way for participation in a general election later this year.
But Buddhists protested against the plan, arguing many of the white-card holders were illegal aliens. Shortly afterwards, the government decided to revoke the cards.
Ban raised the treatment of white card holders with President Thein Sein, saying that failure to permanently resolve the citizenship status of Rohingyas will leave the country open to constant criticism.
Ban also voiced concern about violence in Kachin and Shan states.
"The clashes in Kokang (Shan state) are also deeply disturbing in terms of the toll of lives and destruction," he said. "Humanitarian actors will need unimpeded access to provide much needed aid in a timely fashion. The tensions arising from these clashes must not jeopardize the larger peace process."
Myanmar's government is working to solidify a ceasefire with armed ethnic groups.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)