Obama to press Myanmar on Rohingya citizenship

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar - The United States on Thursday said it will call for Myanmar to allow stateless Rohingya Muslims to become citizens, after President Barack Obama said he was "deeply concerned" about the marginalised group.

Obama, who is in Myanmar's capital to attend the East Asia Summit and meetings with Southeast Asian leaders, will call on the former pariah state to ensure the "fundamental universal rights" of all those in the nation, a White House official said.

The situation in Rakhine state, where some 140,000 people are confined to squalid displacement camps after bloodshed between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012, "presents a challenge to the reform efforts" across the country, said deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes.

A draft of a controversial government-backed Rakhine Action Plan seen by AFP would force Rohingya to identify themselves as Bengali - a term seen as disparaging - in order to apply for citizenship. Those who refused would be housed in camps.

Rhodes said the US President will encourage all Myanmar figureheads, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to support an alternative plan for the Rohingya that "allows them to become citizens of this country without having to self-identify as something they do not believe they are".

The plan should also provide more humanitarian access and ensure they are not "settled indefinitely in camps".

In an interview with the Irrawaddy news website ahead of his arrival in Myanmar, Obama said he was "deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in Rakhine", adding the Rohingya and other Muslims "continue to endure discrimination and abuse".

Rakhine remains a tinderbox of animosity, with the different religious communities almost completely segregated after the fighting.

Muslims in the camps have been left with scant access to healthcare, public services and education.

Obama's use of the term "Rohingya" is laden with political meaning.

Many in Myanmar's government and local Buddhists view them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

But many Rohingya say they can trace their ancestry in the country back for generations.

Rakhine authorities on Thursday issued a rebuke to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for his insistence that the United Nations would use the term Rohingya as part of its principle to "recognise the rights of minorities" at a press conference in Naypyidaw on Wednesday.

Rakhine State Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn said he was concerned that Ban's comments "could further inflame local sentiment and undo previous gains we have achieved", in a document released by the ministry of information.

Some 100,000 people have taken to boats, many barely sea-worthy, to escape the dire conditions in Rakhine, where both Buddhist and Muslim communities have long suffered Myanmar's worst poverty levels.