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Kerry urges Myanmar to progress on Rohingya human rights

Kerry has lauded progress in Myanmar, but urged the country to advance reforms. A major sticking point remains the status of the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday praised Myanmar's transition to democracy, but he urged that the country take further steps to implement economic reforms and recognize the persecuted

Rohingya Muslim minority.

Kerry met with the country's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy champion whose political party took control in March following historic elections late last year.

"Today my message is very, very simple: We strongly support

the democratic transition

that is taking place here," Kerry said at a joint press conference in the capital, Naypyidaw, alongside Suu Kyi, who also holds the position of foreign minister.

Kerry said the new government had "already accomplished extraordinary things" and Myanmar represented a "remarkable statement to people all over the world."

Kerry's visit, the first since the new government took control, came a week after the United States lifted a raft of financial and trade sanctions imposed during Myanmar's military rule.

But sanctions remain on dozens of companies and individuals tied to the military over human rights abuses, opposing reforms and illicit trade with North Korea.

"I know that the legacy of more than half a century of military rule has not been completely erased," Kerry said.

Change in constitution

Under the junta-era constitution, the military gets 25 percent of seats in parliament and holds the portfolios of ministry of defense, border control and home affairs.

"The key to the lifting of the (remaining) sanctions is really the progress that is made within Myanmar in continuing to move down the road of democratization," Kerry said. "It is very difficult to complete that journey, in fact impossible to complete that journey, with the current constitution."

He said changes should include a separation of powers and respect for human rights. Kerry was set to meet with the commander in chief of Myanmar's military later in the day.

Suu Kyi has already

released hundreds of political prisoners

and freed up restrictions on the media.

Rohingya Muslims

However, she has come under criticism for allegedly doing nothing for the

dispossessed and oppressed Rohingya minority

in the western state of Rakhine.

The 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims are not recognized and have no citizenship, which essentially deprives them of any rights. Myanmar's official position is that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have been in the country for generations.

More than 100,000 Rohingya remain displaced since sectarian violence with Buddhist nationalists in 2012.

The US has recently come under criticism in Myanmar for even using the word Rohingya. Buddhist nationalists refer to them as "Bengalis."

"The Rakhine Buddhists object to the term 'Rohingya' just as much as the Muslims object to the term 'Bengali,'" Suu Kyi explained during the press conference.

"Emotive terms make it very difficult for us to find a peaceful and sensible solution," Suu Kyi said, recognizing there was a problem. "People should be aware of the difficulties that we are facing and give us a safe distance. ... What we are saying is that there are more important things to deal with than issues of nomenclature."

Kerry acknowledged the name issue was sensitive, but said that the status of the Rohingya could not be ignored.

"At the same time we all understand as a matter of fact that there is a group here in Myanmar that calls itself Rohingya," Kerry said, reiterating the US position that all ethnic and religious groups should be able to have an identity.

cw/tj (AFP, AP)

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