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Myanmar official acknowledges Muslim minority Rohingya 'are people'

November 13th, 2014
04:45 PM ET

By Madalena Araujo, CNN

Myanmar’s Ambassador to the UK acknowledged the long-persecuted Muslim minority Rohingya “are people” on Thursday in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

“Yes, they are people. But we [do] not accept the title… the ‘Rohingya’,” Ambassador Kyaw Zwar Minn said.

Myanmar’s government refuses to recognize the term Rohingya, calling them instead Bengali and saying they are illegal immigrants, despite the fact that many have been in the country for generations. It has also denied them the right to citizenship.

Amanpour highlighted that even the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon urged Myanmar to let the ethnic group be called whatever they want.

“Of course,” the Ambassador replied, adding that “it will take time to find the right answer.”

In 2012, ethnic violence between Buddhists and Rohingyas killed hundreds and left more than 140,000 displaced.

The Ambassador said that “two or three years ago, we watched the movie, "Rambo", an action film that was shot in Myanmar.

“So at that movie, they shot a lot of bad scenes about our army.  So actually, you know, even that I was working in the army for 30 years, I'd never give the order to rape and kill other people.”

“So that means, you know, we need to balance the media and the reality.  So of course, you know, they can recycle these pictures in the media.  But you need to be careful what they are saying, is it true or not.”

As U.S. President Barack Obama visits Myanmar this week, the Rohingya community’s precarious situation has stumbled into the spotlight. Questions are also being raised about the country’s commitment to reform and to continuing its transition to democracy.

Kyaw Zwar Minn said Myanmar’s relationship with the U.S. is “important.”

“We believe that President Obama will keep supporting to our country because you see, in the very first time, where he make a visit first time to our country, and of course he would like to encourage our country, our reform process.”

As it stands, the country’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from running in next year’s election due to a constitutional provision that forbids anyone who is married to a foreigner or who has foreign-born children from running. 

If the constitutional issue resolved, it would be very telling of a fair election process, Amanpour said. So what is going to happen?

“It depends on the people who will decide,” Kyaw Zwar Minn, who also happens to be Myanmar’s Ambassador to France, Scandinavia and Ireland, told Amanpour.

And as to whether he thinks Aung San Suu Kyi should be allowed to run, the Ambassador replied with a short “we will see.”

Also on the program to discuss the state of affairs in the country was Lex Rieffel, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on South East Asia.

Rieffel started by saying that he thinks “it is impossible for anyone in the Western world to appreciate the depth of the anti-Rohingya sentiment” in Myanmar, which he was “appalled” to have witnessed first-hand.

“These are attitudes that don’t change in a year, they don’t change necessarily in a generation and they don’t necessarily change faster when there is outside pressure,” Rieffel said.

The Western world, Rieffel added, has “unrealistic expectations” for Myanmar, which is a country that ultimately needs to “to find its own path to a better society” and address an even bigger problem than the Rohingya question.

“The Rohingya problem may be the worst problem, the most difficult problem to solve, but it’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the conflict with the ethnic minorities that has been going on since independence since 60 years ago, the peace process.”

“I can’t see any decent future for this country without a resolution to the peace process and that peace process has a direct connection to the election that is supposed to be held next year and again the question is what can outsiders do help the Myanmar government succeed in its effort to bring peace to that country? And I’m not sure that we’re doing the right thing.”

Rieffel explained that, with so many governments and NGOs weighing in and trying so hard to bring peace to the country, “they [Myanmar’s government official] don’t have time to make the policy decisions to negotiate the ethnic minorities and so forth that they need.”

Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Latest Episode • Myanmar
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