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Myanmar to consider rights for Rohingya minority

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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's president has pledged to consider new rights for the stateless Rohingya minority ahead of a landmark visit by President Barack Obama, but stopped short of a full commitment that citizenship and other new freedoms would be granted.

In a letter sent to the United Nations on Friday, President Thein Sein made conciliatory remarks that condemned the "senseless violence" in western Rakhine state between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya.

Almost 200 people have died and more than 100,000 have been displaced since June in fighting between the two communities, an eruption of longstanding hatred that highlights the fragility of Myanmar's transition toward democracy.

Thein Sein made no promises in his letter and offered no timeline for resolving the tensions, but it marked an overture to the international community and to Obama, who arrives Monday for the first visit to Myanmar by a U.S. president.

The White House has urged Myanmar to take urgent action to end the strife and has said Obama will press the matter with Thein Sein, along with demands to free political prisoners as the Southeast Asian country transitions to democracy after a half-century of military rule.

In his letter, Thein Sein said his government was prepared to address contentious issues "ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship," according to a statement from the spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that contained excerpts from the letter.

Thein Sein said he also would look at issues including work permits and permits granting freedom of movement for the Rohingya to ensure they are treated in line with "accepted international norms."

The U.N. statement called Thein Sein's letter a step "in the right direction."

It was not clear from his letter whether Thein Sein was changing his stance on citizenship for the Rohingya. He has previously cited strict citizenship laws stating that only Rohingya whose families settled in the country before independence from Britain in 1948 were considered citizens.

The United Nations has called the Rohingya — who are widely reviled by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar — among the most persecuted people on Earth.

Myanmar denies the Rohingya citizenship, even though many of their families have lived in Myanmar for generations. The government considers them to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but Bangladesh also rejects them, rendering them stateless.

The U.N. estimates that 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar, where they face heavy-handed restrictions: They need permission to marry, have more than two children and travel outside of their villages.

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Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report from Bangkok.

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