U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday urged the government of Myanmar to address the citizenship status of Rohingya Muslims ahead of elections planned for later this year.
In a meeting at the United Nations, Ban told regional officials that the ongoing communal tensions in the country's western Rakhine state could be "seriously destabilizing."
The state has been the site of deadly clashes between the Buddhist community and the mostly Muslim Rohingya, many of whom are stateless.
"There are already troubling signs of ethnic and religious differences being exploited in the run-up to the elections," Ban said, adding that the reform process could be jeopardized if the underlying causes of tensions were not addressed.
Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country also known as Burma, does not recognize the existence of the Rohingya ethnicity. Government officials, and many locals, instead view Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Sectarian unrest killed up to 280 Rohingya and displaced 140,000 others in June 2012. Since then, tens of thousands of Rohingya have been forced to live in camps for displaced people.
The Myanmar government has rejected demands for citizenship for the Rohingya but has expressed a willingness to consider citizenship for those who will identify as Bengali.
The country's 1982 citizenship law says members of any officially recognized minority must be able to prove their ancestors lived in Burma before the British invaded Rakhine in 1823.
The British occupation of Rakhine prompted a large migration of Muslims into the area from neighboring Chittagong, then part of British-ruled India and now located in modern-day Bangladesh.
Many of Myanmar's hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims say their ancestors have lived in Burma for generations. But the impoverished minority group lacks the documentation to prove it.