Seventeen countries Asian countries met in Bangkok, Thailand, on Friday to discuss the migrant crisis that has seen thousands lost at sea.
U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Myanmar to address the status of Rohingya Muslims in the country.
“The communal situation in Rakhine and elsewhere remains fragile,” Ban said. “There are already troubling signs of ethnic and religious differences being exploited in the run-up to the elections. The reform process could be jeopardized if the underlying causes of these tensions are left unaddressed.”
Myanmar was criticized for failing to include in its census – the first in three decades – Rohingya Muslims in the list of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups, which was taken as a sign that the country still has no intention of recognizing its 1.3 million Rohingya as citizens.
Myanmar President Thein Sein launched the census and said it had been done in line with international standards.
“From the political dialogues that we will be conducting in the very near future to establish a union based on federal principles, we will certainly encounter issues of categorizing and recognizing the ethnic national races based on political agreements reached,” he said.
The Dalai Lama joined in the debate and asked Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do more to help the persecuted minority in her country. It is not the first time the Tibetan spiritual leader has pleaded to Suu Kyi, who has always refused to publicly speak out for the Rohingya.
Myanmar refuses to recognize the term Rohingya and calls the people Bengali, suggesting they come from neighboring Bangladesh. Officials in Myanmar said they would not attend the Bangkok meeting if the term Rohingya was used on the statement; which Thailand accepted by titling the conference “Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean.”
Many nongovernmental organizations have been trying to help the Rohingyas, which the U.N. describes as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. On Thursday, the Rakhine state legislature voted to shut down unregistered NGOs, arguing they had been “causing bigger problems” between Muslims and Buddhists. Doctors Without Borders was one of the nongovernmental organizations asked to stop working in the Rakhine state, where it was providing health care to displaced people in camps.