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Muslims' plight ongoing despite Myanmar reforms

Country continues to top global lists in terms of human rights violations and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities

Myanmar's ethnic and religious minorities - in particular its minority Muslims - continue to suffer under anti-democratic policies, despite political and media freedoms introduced by the country's first civilian government in 50 years.

United States President Barack Obama warned against the failure to instil further reforms during an official visit to the country this week

“In some areas there has been a slowdown... and even some steps backward,” he told a local news website.

In Nov. 2010, President Thein Sein came to power after his military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won elections, which opposition groups and the Western states described as a sham.

Since then, his government has introduced several reforms, including the release of some political prisoners, a truce with some ethnic groups and an extension of media freedoms, however the country continues to top global lists in terms of human rights violations and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities.

In late September, Myanmar introduced a controversial plan that aims to force the predominantly Buddhist country's Rohingya Muslims -- one of the most persecuted minorities in the world according to the United Nations -- to identify as Bengali, a term favored by the government because it implies the group are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – despite evidence they have lived in Myanmar for generations.

Myanmar General Win Naing Tun attempted to enforce the notion that Rohingya had no rights to be in the country during a meeting in neighboring Thailand on people smuggling in August.

"There are no Rohingya in Myanmar, but we do have a minority group coming from a neighboring country," he underlines.

The Rakhine State Action Plan - named after the state where many Rohingya remain confined by armed guards and checkpoints in squalid camps after mob attacks on their villages in 2012 forced them to flee their homes - offers the chance of citizenship to roughly 1 million Rohingya if they accept the new identification, but those who refuse to register with face being deported or placed in detention camps.

Obama called on Myanmar to scrap the plan during his trip to the country Thursday, instead urging the government to draw up a new one that will allow the stateless group to become citizens.

"We would like to see a new plan that will allow the Rohingya to become citizens through a normal process without having to do that type of self-identification,” said U.S. security adviser Ben Rhodes during a regional summit in Myanmar's capital Nay Pyi Taw.

Since 2012, 200 people -- mostly Rohingya -- have been killed and 140,000 made homeless during clashes with Arakan Buddhists.

The government has taken an active part in the clashes, at times giving open public statements that appear to promote the ethnic cleansing of Muslims.

Myanmar officials, however have vehemently denied that any Rohingya were killed in 2012.

To further complicate matters, humanitarian-aid outfit Doctors Without Borders was expelled from Arakan in February after it said it had treated people believed to be victims of the violence. The government then accused MSF of being biased in favor of Rohingya.

The agency was only invited back to the area in late July, five months after its expulsion – which sparked a severe health crisis that left thousands of Rohingya without access to adequate treatment, including women with complications during pregnancy.

To escape such complications, tens of thousands of Rohingya have paid large amounts of money to smugglers to flee on cramped boats in the hope of finding work in Thailand, Malaysia or Australia. Many have been abused during such trips, and many now reside in Thai immigration camps having been dumped by people smugglers on the country's shores.

The U.S. based rights group Human Rights Watch prepared a 153-page report on the situation in April 2013, accusing the government of conducting ethnic cleansing against Rohingya.

Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director, said the government should put an immediate stop the "ethnic cleansing... that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement."

Early reforms by the government included the release of political leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest as of 1990 after her party won the then-elections but never allowed her to take power.

Myanmar authorities have also arrived at a truce with rebels from the Shan ethnic group and ordered a halt to military operations against ethnic Kachin rebels, known as the Kachin Independence Army.

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