Rohingya children in Maungdaw, northern Rakhine state.
Images: Eric Paulsen
Rohingya children in Maungdaw, northern Rakhine state. Images: Eric Paulsen

The Rohingya moment

Statelessness and Burma’s democratic transition.

In the midst of the cautious excitement accompanying Burma's seeming democratic transition, one of the key human rights issues that international leaders and Burma's pro-democratic and ethnic activists have failed to address is the continuing statelessness and marginalisation of the Rohingya, the Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in northern Rakhine state, bordering Bangladesh. Rakhine (formerly known as Arakan), one of the poorest and most isolated states in Burma, is home to some 800,000 Rohingya, who are among the world's most persecuted communities, on par with the Roma in Europe and the Hmong in Laos. They have remained stateless for decades, with neither home nor citizenship, popping up on the world's consciousness only when a humanitarian crisis strikes. The most recent such crisis occurred in January 2011 when yet another boatload of Rohingya emigrants was detained in Thai waters, towed away by the Thai Navy and left to die in the open sea without an engine, food or water.

The Burmese population of some 58 million people is commonly defined in laws and government policies as comprising eight major 'ethnic nationalities': the Bamar (Burman), Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin (Karen), Mon, Rakhine (Arakan) and Shan (although they are further divided into 135 sub-ethnic groups). 'Non-national' ethnic groups – including the Rohingya, but also people of Chinese, Indian and Nepali origin – were burdened with proving their continued permanent residence in the country in order to claim full citizenship. Those claiming full citizenship were required to prove ancestral residence from prior to the start of the British occupation in 1823, while those seeking naturalised citizenship had to show continued residence predating 4 January 1948, the date of Burma's independence. Of course, many were unable to provide such detailed evidence.

In practice, Burmese immigration authorities have been reluctant to grant full citizenship to people suspected to be of non-national ethnic origin or of having mixed heritage. Burmese officials constantly refer to such groups as guests, foreigners, suspicious citizens or even 'half-breeds', even though there is no genuine issue as to whether these people are Burmese nationals. Immigration bureaucrats have been known to use all manner of excuses and discretionary powers to reject or delay citizenship applications, often in order to obtain bribes, even in cases where applicants are fully eligible. The prospect of gaining citizenship often depends on an individual's or group's perceived degree of integration into 'national' Burmese society, forcing non-national groups to strive towards complete assimilation.

Statelessness and persecution

The Rohingya, meanwhile, are denied Burmese citizenship even though they have lived in Burma for generations. They are accorded only 'permanent resident' status, with the majority holding a Temporary Registration Certificate instead of the Citizenship Scrutiny Card issued to full citizens. Because the Rohingya are related to the Bengalis of Chittagong, the Burmese government claims that they are ethnic Bengalis who arrived unchecked from India during British rule, and more recently from Bangladesh. In January 2011, when Burma underwent its first universal review by the UN Human Rights Council, the Burmese delegation maintained the government's long-standing view on the issue: 'The allegation regarding the discrimination and harassment against the local population of Northern Rakhine State is contrary to the facts. Historically and culturally those people do not constitute any national race and are illegal immigrants residing along the border areas of Northern Rakhine State.'

The Rohingya suffer from serious state discrimination and degrading practices. These include arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labour, arbitrary taxation, extortion, travel restrictions, expropriation of property and poor access to higher education. Historically, they have also suffered tremendously from state violence. In 1978, over 200,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh during the naga min (Dragon King) citizenship scrutiny operation, which at times turned violent and deadly. A similar operation called the pyi thaya (Clean and Beautiful Nation) caused an additional 250,000 Rohingya to flee in 1991 and 1992. Most were eventually allowed to return following international pressure, but more than 28,700 Rohingya still remain in refugee camps in Bangladesh, while the Dhaka government estimates that another 200,000 are living in villages outside the camps. Not surprisingly, today many Rohingya try to flee in order to seek asylum and a better life elsewhere, making the dangerous journey to Thailand, Malaysia or Australia in overcrowded and rickety boats. There are an estimated 50,000 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, and half a million more living as migrant workers in West Asia.

It is difficult to understand the origin of Burma's animosity toward its Rohingya population, whom the majority Burmese consider to be beneath even the kala (foreigners) of Indian origin, who already face considerable discrimination. The simplest explanations are undercurrents of racism and Islamophobia, founded on the Rohingya's dark skin and Muslim identity in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country. The Rohingya's general isolation from the mainstream Rakhine and Bamar population is also a contributing factor, but such isolation is not substantially different from that of other minorities who have fractious relations with the Burmese state but who are not treated with the same level of prejudice.

A Rohingya family photo taken by the local authorities as proof of residency in Maungdaw. Those not at home when the photos are taken risk being punished or struck off as a resident.
A Rohingya family photo taken by the local authorities as proof of residency in Maungdaw. Those not at home when the photos are taken risk being punished or struck off as a resident.

To justify its treatment of the Rohingya, the Burmese state claims its policies are aimed at ensuring national security and preventing illegal immigration from Bangladesh. But these strike many as poor explanations. Rakhine, like Burma's other border regions, is populated on both sides of the state line by members of the same ethnic group. For example, ethnic Chin and Naga are also present in India; Kachin, Wa and Shan in China; Karen, Mon and Shan in Thailand. Many of these groups enjoy trade, family ties and relaxed cross-border movement that the Burmese government has done little to control. Further, Muslim armed resistance has been insignificant since the 1950s, and has never compared with the well-established ethnic armed groups that continue to operate in Kachin, Kayin and Shan states.

The naturalisation solution

Technically, citizenship laws – mainly the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law – do not exclude Rohingya from acquiring naturalised citizenship. In practice, however, the overwhelming majority of the community hold only temporary documents, or are without any documents whatsoever. Those who manage to acquire naturalised or full citizenship rely on individual connections. Though these documents are technically obtained through legal channels, the Rohingya still risk being accused of falsely acquiring identity documents, as the official policy holds that all ‘Bengalis’ in Rakhine are only entitled to temporary documents.

As a solution, some Rohingya have demanded that they be recognised as a national ethnic group and be granted citizenship by birthright. The thought here is that anything less opens the possibility of future revocation. However, Rohingya who do not have the means or connections to acquire better documentation, but need identification paper for travel and employment, still welcome the possibility of naturalised citizenship.

Naturalised citizenship would go some way toward reducing the Burmese government’s arbitrary and discriminatory practices. Unless restrictive caveats remain, it would improve the Rohingya’s ability to travel, to acquire a passport and to access higher education. Hindus of Indian origin in Rakhine who recently obtained naturalised citizenship have said they are now able to travel more freely. There are murmurings that the Burmese government may also be considering naturalised citizenship or some status other than permanent residency for the Rohingya. It does not make good policy, after all, to exclude only the Rohingya while Indian-origin Hindus in Rakhine with similar eligibility are granted naturalised citizenship. In today’s era of new scrutiny by the outside world, such discrepancies matter. 

Most significantly, the citizenship laws on the books already provide that after three generations, all descendants of naturalised citizens are to be granted full citizenship. These provisions have yet to be tested, however, and it will take some more time before the third generations of naturalised citizens are eligible to make such a claim. Of course, there is no guarantee that naturalised citizenship for the Rohingya, if it were to be granted, would not be revoked in the future on some flimsy pretext, or that their third generation would be able to acquire full citizenship. Nonetheless, at this point, surely the possibility of entrenching their status as naturalised citizens far outweighs any potential revocation. As such, if given the opportunity, the Rohingya should take advantage of the ongoing democratic transition to advocate for their rightful place in Burma, and to work towards the achievable goal of naturalised citizenship status rather than wait for national recognition as an ethnic group, which is highly improbable if not impossible.

To not be left behind

This is an important point to stress: the idea that the Rohingya could suddenly be accepted as a national ethnic group in Burma cannot be taken seriously. In general, Rohingya groups have been isolated and excluded from multilateral discussions, both within Burma and beyond. They have little to no public or political support from any other ethnic group or from Burma’s opposition and exile groups, and certainly none from the Rakhine ethnic majority in the state, where deep suspicion and hostility remain. 

Seemingly innocuous events have recently highlighted the deep division between the Rohingya and the general Burmese population. In November 2011, a BBC report that carried a map depicting Rakhine as populated by Rohingya sparked outrage in Burma, especially in the state. This led to hundreds of complaints, many of which were harsh, nationalistic and racist in nature, calling on the BBC to issue a public apology and remove any reference to the Rohingya from the map. Since the incident, anti-Rohingya blogs and social-networking pages have appeared.

The view of Ye Myint Aung, Myanmar’s consul-general in Hong Kong at the time, expressed in a letter to his fellow heads of mission and international newspapers in February 2009, perhaps best puts the dynamic into perspective: ‘In reality, Rohingya are neither “Myanmar People” nor Myanmar’s ethnic group. You will see in the photos that their complexion is “dark brown”. The complexion of Myanmar people is fair and soft, good looking as well … [The Rohingya] are as ugly as ogres.’

Since then, at least at the national level, the tone of many political discussions in Burma has changed. Yet even if discussions do begin on reconciliation and ethnic minorities’ demands for a fairer and more equitable Union of Burma – and even if the Rohingya are invited to participate – it is unlikely that such talks would make inroads toward the community becoming an official national ethnic group, much less being granted ethnic autonomy and federalism. Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) currently have an extraordinary opportunity to include the Rohingya in the new democratic process, but the NLD has shown no indication that this issue is a priority. According to the stated views of NLD Vice-chairman Tin Oo, for instance, the prospects of the party reaching out to the Rohingya do not seem very high. In an interview in October 2011, Oo reaffirmed the government line that the Rohingya are immigrants from Bangladesh, and further stated that, when he was a general in the Myanmar Army, he had helped to protect ethnic Rakhine from Rohingya ‘threats’.

This should not discourage the Rohingya from demanding greater rights and equality. But in so doing, they should not take an ‘all or nothing’ stance. Doing so could not only prove counterproductive to their welfare but also perpetuate the community’s suffering and inequality. The Rohingya should seize the current opportunity and ride the ongoing democratic wave which has led to the release of political prisoners, the legalisation of the NLD, an attempted reconciliation with ethnic armed groups, a freer media, and even the halt of a mega-dam project. Failing this, the Rohingya will once again be left behind. Of course, naturalised citizenship is not on par with recognition as a national ethnic group, but at present it remains the most realistic and workable solution to the community’s statelessness.

~Eric Paulsen is co-founder and adviser to Lawyers for Liberty, a human rights and law reform organisation based in Malaysia. He has researched statelessness in Bangladesh, Nepal and, most recently, in Burma.

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