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UN Chief: Burma Should Address Citizenship Demands of Rohingya

An internally displaced Rohingya woman holds her newborn baby surrounded by children in the foreground of makeshift tents at a camp for Rohingya people in Sittwe, northwestern Rakhine State, Burma, May 13, 2013.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says he is concerned about the "disturbing" humanitarian plight of Burma's Rohingya Muslims, and even appeared to call for the minority group to be given full citizenship.

In a speech Wednesday to diplomats at U.N. headquarters, Ban said he is "deeply troubled" at the sectarian violence that has left about 200 people dead and 140,000 displaced across the country over the past year.

The U.N. has called the Rohingya one of the world's most persecuted minority groups. They are denied citizenship and many other basic rights in Burma, where they are instead regarded as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

In prepared remarks, Ban said the government should take the "necessary steps to address the legitimate grievances of minority communities, including the citizenship demands of the Muslim/Rohingya in Rakhine."

The U.N. chief has in the past called for Burmese authorities to address the Rohingya citizenship issue.

Ban also criticized the government's response to the sectarian crisis, saying President Thein Sein must take "concrete action" to punish the perpetrators of the violence and reduce tensions that led to the unrest.

If the country's "dangerous polarization" is not addressed "urgently and firmly," Ban said underlying tensions could "provoke more upheaval, undermining the reform process and triggering negative regional repercussions."

The unrest began last year with clashes between ethnic majority Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine. Tens of thousands of Rohingya remain in squalid refugee camps, where they are prevented by authorities from leaving.

Though the violence has since calmed in Rakhine, it later spread to other parts of Burma and took on a more general anti-Muslim tone that has seen roving gangs of Buddhist extremists attack mosques and Muslim-owned businesses.

The unrest threatens to undermine the political and economic reforms undertaken by Burmese President Thein Sein, who is guiding the country away from decades of authoritarian military rule.

The reforms have won praise from many Western nations, including the United States, which has responded by lifting most sanctions on the Southeast Asian country.

But a group of U.N. ambassadors from Muslim majority countries that met with Mr. Ban on Wednesday said that Burma cannot rejoin the international community unless it addresses the Rohingya issue.