UNITED NATIONS U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the world's largest Islamic body on Saturday to "treat carefully" the issue of the stateless Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar because it could affect the reform process underway in the country, also known as Burma.
Over the past year, Myanmar has introduced the most sweeping reforms in the former British colony since a 1962 military coup. A semi-civilian government, stacked with former generals, has allowed elections, eased rules on protests and freed dissidents.
But an outbreak of violence in June between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingyas killed 80 people and displaced thousands. At least 800,000 Rohingyas are not recognized as one of the country's many ethnic and religious groups.
Rights groups accused Myanmar security forces of killing, raping and arresting Rohingyas after the riots. Myanmar has said it exercised "maximum restraint" in quelling the riots.
Ban discussed the issue in separate meeting with Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and Myanmar President Thein Sein on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly of world leaders.
During his meeting with Ihsanoglu, Ban "indicated the importance of the situation in Rakhine being treated carefully because of the potential wider implications of the Rakhine issue on the overall reform process in Myanmar," his spokesman said.
An OIC committee set up to deal with the Rohingya issue met for the first time in New York this week and called for them to be given rights as citizens in Myanmar. Ihsanoglu said he wanted to visit Myanmar when the government was ready to "to remedy the fundamental rights issues of the Rohingya Muslims."
Myanmar's president is in a tight spot. Concessions towards the Rohingyas could prove unpopular among the general public, but perceived ill-treatment risks angering Western countries that have eased sanctions in response to human rights reforms.
Thein Sein said in June the government was only responsible for third-generation Rohingyas whose families had arrived before independence in 1948 and that it was impossible to accept those who had "illegally entered" Myanmar.
Ban and Thein Sein "discussed the recent outbreak of violence in Rakhine state and the immediate and long-term perspectives to promote inter-communal harmony and address the root causes of the tension there, including developmental efforts," Ban's spokesman said in a statement.
"The President confirmed the country would address the long-term ramifications of this question," the spokesman said.
Last week Aung Min, a minister in President Thein Sein's office and the government's top negotiator in peace talks with at least 10 ethnic minority rebel groups, said the government had set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the violence between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingyas.
The commission would look at how further violence could be prevented, which includes examining the status of the ethnic minorities, he said. It is due to report on due November 16.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Sandra Maler)