Ethnic ministry 'vital': Myanmar president-elect Htin Kyaw

Plans to create a new ethnic affairs ministry were "vital", said Myanmar's new president-elect Htin Kyaw. PHOTO: EPA

NAYPYIDAW (AFP) - Myanmar's new president-elect told lawmakers on Monday (March 21) that plans to create a new ethnic affairs ministry were "vital" for the conflict-torn nation, in his maiden address since being elected the first civilian leader in decades.

Htin Kyaw, a close confidante of Aung San Suu Kyi who will rule as her proxy, indicated that tackling the legacy of half a century of civil wars in ethnic minority borderlands will be a major priority for his government, which officially takes power next week.

"A ministry of ethnic affairs is of vital importance for the future of the union (Myanmar), which needs peace, development and sustainability," he told lawmakers in a speech primarily centred on plans to streamline the country's bloated bureaucracy.

Htin Kyaw takes the mantle of leadership as Myanmar is in the midst of a dramatic transformation after years shackled by military rule.

Greater openness, a surging economy and the landslide victory in November's historic elections for Suu Kyi and her party have all buoyed optimism in the future.

But conflicts continue to rage in several areas between ethnic minority armed groups and the still-powerful national army, which operates beyond the reaches of civilian government, after a ceasefire pact signed last year failed to include all of the country's fighters.

Some 240,000 people are displaced due to unrest and communal conflict in Myanmar, mostly in northern Kachin state where fighting between the army and rebels is ongoing, and in western Rakhine, where tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims remain trapped in camps following outbreaks of communal violence in 2012.

Thousands more have been displaced in recent weeks in Shan state in the east, amid fighting between the military and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which did not sign the ceasefire.

The situation in Rakhine state is a key concern of the international community, which has urged the new government to prioritise the plight of the Rohingya, many of whom have been left effectively stateless.

Desperate Rohingya, viewed by many in Rakhine's Buddhist community as largely illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, have escaped on boats in their thousands, with a huge exodus last year that sparked an international crisis as hundreds perished at sea.

Suu Kyi has remained reticent on the issue while the NLD did not field a single Muslim candidate in elections, a move observers say was designed to calm Buddhist nationalist ire.

Speaking to reporters in Bangkok on Monday, Volker Turk, the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the United Nation's refugee agency said the international community understood that the situation in Rakhine was "complicated".

But he added: "We hope very much that the new Myanmar government will look at the very particular situation of the Rakhine state and find ways and means to address it, in dealing with all the populations that are there," he told reporters in Bangkok.

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