BANGKOK - Vijay Nambiar, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy to Burma, traveled Wednesday to Rakhine state, where ethnic and sectarian clashes erupted earlier this month. He was accompanied by Burma's Border Affairs Minister Thein Htay and 10 Muslim leaders from Rangoon. While in the state capital, Sittwe, Nambiar met with state officials to discuss the volatile situation.
His visit comes after Bangladesh denied the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' request that it open its borders to Rohingya people fleeing the ethnic and sectarian violence that broke out last week.
Dhaka-based Professor Amena Mohsin says the Rohingya have existed between Bangladesh and Burma for centuries, but neither country will grant them citizenship.
"Myanmar [Burmese] government is taking its hands off. Its position is that these are Bengali Muslims who have infiltrated into Myanmar from Bangladesh," Mohsin said. "And, Bangladesh's position is that these are the citizens from Myanmar. If you look at the diplomatic ramifications, unfortunately, it has come at a time when Bangladesh was trying to warm up with Myanmar."
U.N. refugee officials say boats arriving in Bangladesh's Teknaf with women and children fleeing the violence in Rakhine state have been denied entry. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the military and police could use excessive force when trying to bring the violence under control.
As the unrest continues, some worry it could damage key government-backed development projects, including a joint venture oil and gas pipeline with China. The Shwe gas and oil pipelines will carry oil and gas to China’s Yunnan province.
In Beijing Wednesday, foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, said China supports the Burmese government’s efforts to bring the riots under control. Liu said Beijing is behind Burma's efforts to safeguard national stability and ethnic harmony.
Wong Aung, a Rakhine activist in northern Thailand, says ethnic unrest surrounds Burma’s resource-rich borderlands, such as pipeline and hydropower projects in the north. He says, in those places, ethnic minorities suffer at the hands of the government, when it sends in the military to ensure security.
"Since fighting has been brought out between the ethnic armed groups in northern Shan state and Kachin state they [the conflicts] are directly related to the exploitation of natural resources," said Aung. "The government is trying to secure the pipeline from Arakan [Rakhine] state through central Burma until the China border."
Human Rights Watch says the fighting in the Rakhine state has led local companies to suspend operations, adding pressure to government efforts to resolve the situation.