By VICTORIA MILKO | FRONTIER
YANGON — The European Union Ambassador to Myanmar has said that communal tensions in Rakhine State remain “very high on the international agenda” during a policy briefing Wednesday.
Speaking at the Shangri La Hotel in downtown Yangon, Roland Kobia highlighted the EU’s humanitarian and development commitments in Rakhine while seeking to remain above the fray over the renewed controversy over use of the term Rohingya to refer to part of the state’s Muslim population.
“We wish to be helpful and supportive of solutions, and not to create additional layers of complexity,” he said. “For us the issues of substance in the short term are more important than nomenclature at this stage in the process.”
The Rohingya, a population of more than one million predominantly Muslim residents of Rakhine State, were the disproportionate victims of communal violence in 2012 that left hundreds dead and displaced more than 100,000 others.
Though many trace their ancestry in Myanmar back several generations, much of the ethnic Rakhine population of the state, along with a substantial segment of public opinion elsewhere in the country, considers those that self-identify as Rohingya a population of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Use of the word Rohingya in an official United States Embassy statement prompted a nationalist demonstration outside the American embassy compound at the end of April, with a nationalist group later calling for the expulsion of US Ambassador Scot Marciel.
During the visit of United Nations Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee this week, officials were ordered not to use either the terms Rohingya or ‘Bengali’ — a pejorative term for the community — and instead use the phrase “Muslims in Rakhine State”.
Ethnic Rakhine political leaders have long complained that the needs of the Buddhist community of the state, one of the poorest regions in Myanmar, have been ignored while international donors focus relief and development efforts on the state’s Muslim community — an allegation Kobia challenged on Wednesday.
“We are the biggest supporters of development in Rakhine State,” he said. “And contrary to what certain people believe, this development aid is given impartially and to all communities, not targeting in one community in favour of the other.”
Wednesday’s briefing came in the wake of a decision by the Council of the European Union earlier this week to endorse a strategy of increased engagement with Myanmar, in the wake of the National League for Democracy’s election win last November and the gradual transition to civilian rule.
Praising the EU’s “crucial role in the country’s transformation”, the European Commission has outlined proposals to continue support for police reform and the peace process.
Present on Wednesday were a number of European ambassadors to endorse the EU Council’s engagement strategy.
UK Ambassador Andrew Patrick would not be drawn on questions relating to Thursday’s referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, saying only that British aid to Myanmar would continue regardless of the vote’s outcome.