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July 10, 2013

Jakarta Pressing Burma on Rohingya Legal Rights

by Ron Corben

Indonesia is pressing Burma’s government to grant legal status to the country’s Muslim Rohingya. As more Rohingya seek asylum in Indonesia and elsewhere abroad, Ron Corben reports from Bangkok that Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa says Burma needs to take action to end inter-communal violence.

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, says Burma has to press on with democratic reforms and recognize the legal rights of hundreds of thousands of stateless Muslim Rohingya.

Burma - also known as Myanmar - has been wracked by sectarian bloodshed over the past year that has led to more than 200 deaths and displaced tens of thousands. Fighting began in communities with large numbers of ethnic Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Burma.

Natalegawa, speaking to reporters in Bangkok Wednesday, says Indonesia is “encouraging” Burma to grant legal recognition to the Rohingya as an initial step to ease tensions.

“There is the issue of the status issue, which on the one hand is political as well as legal, which we are now encouraging the government of Myanmar to address in a fundamental way so that the Rohingya can obtain the kind of status and legal rights similar and akin to the rest of their countrymen,” said Natalegawa.

Burmese authorities have long excluded Rohingya from the ethnic groups recognized as Burmese citizens, claiming that they have always been illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Natalegawa says there is a “huge sense of distrust” that now lies between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority in Burma as a result of the sectarian bloodshed. He said Indonesia had to work through similar bouts of violence since the late 1990s as it moved towards democratization. He says Indonesia is ready to share its experience with Burmese authorities in rebuilding the communities.

“So we know there is an issue to be addressed but I believe that this is part and parcel of Myanmar’s democratization efforts," he said. "It cannot be treated in isolation so we must impress upon the Myanmar government as we have been, that to be able to transform democratically there must be at the same time, not sequentially, at the same time they must also address the issue of communal tensions and horizontal conflicts.”

Thousands of Rohingya have fled by boat on perilous journeys, with an unknown number perishing at sea, as they seek asylum abroad.

Indonesia is planning to convene a major regional conference this year to combat people smugglers and reduce the flows of boat people coming into the region.