12 November 2014DVB

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (World Economic Forum/Flickr).

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with a select group of local reporters today at the 25th ASEAN Summit in Naypyidaw, where he toned down earlier statements supporting the UN’s recognition of the term “Rohingya,” a move that appears to have been calculated to avoid a backlash from the Burmese government and media.

Addressing the government’s “Action Plan” for Arakan State, he said he was confident that the government “can be successful in addressing the complex problems in Rakhine [Arakan] so that all communities can look forward to a safe, dignified and hopeful future,” adding that  “The UN stands ready to help in these efforts.”

A leaked draft of the controversial Rakhine Action Plan, which was seen by the media at the end of September, contained clauses that, if implemented, could potentially see hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas and other Muslims face indefinite detention and eventual expulsion from Burma if they fail to meet stringent requirements qualifying them for Burmese citizenship.

On Wednesday, the Secretary-General unambiguously declared that “the United Nations uses that word [Rohingya] based on the rights of minorities,” implicitly criticising government policy forcing them to identify as “Bengalis” if they desire citizenship rights currently denied to them under Burma’s 1982 citizenship law.

But in an apparent about-face on Thursday, Ban said that “focusing on the issue of terminology will not solve the problem,” claiming that “these problems can only be solved through political solutions and both humanitarian and development assistance to those who are suffering and in need.”

His statement on Thursday took ethnic Arakanese grievances into account, observing that “both communities [in Arakan State] have suffered violations of their rights,” clarifying that “the UN is concerned about the well being of all peoples.”

“It is time to alleviate the fears of the two communities: by that I mean both the Rakhine community and what you call the Rohingyas or Bengalis, and to address their grievances and uphold their human rights,” he said. “Failure to do so, as we have seen in other parts of the world, can magnify inter-communal tensions and sow the seeds for future instability.”

His earlier show of support for Rohingya rights to self-identification was met by vociferous questioning from Burmese reporters at the conference, who dedicated the majority of a question-and-answer session following his address to the subject.

On Thursday, Presidential spokesman Zaw Htay posted an exchange on his Facebook page between a Burmese reporter and the Secretary-General at the Wednesday conference, in which he was asked for his opinion on a proposal to “DNA test” Rohingyas to determine if the name “Bengali” was “scientific.”

Maung Maung Ohn, the Chief Minister of Arakan State, penned Ban a refutation letter on Thursday asserting that “lending the stature of your office to this highly volatile debate…  can have a lasting detrimental impact on our ability to do the work needed on the ground to bring the communities together.”

Although Ban’s wavering on the question of Rohingya identity sets a questionable precedent for the UN’s acceptance of the erosion of basic rights in Burma, the organisation does not accept the Rakhine Action Plan’s more worrying components.

“The UN is aware of the draft plan which includes some controversial elements and challenges,” Stephane Dujarric, the Secretary-General’s spokesman, told DVB. “Concerns have been raised and the UN will continue making efforts to have the authorities ensure that any framework for Rakhine will abide by international norms and standards.”

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