In the midst of the euphoria accompanying Burma’s seeming democratic transition, one of the key human rights issues that international leaders and Burma pro-democracy and ethnic group activists have failed to address is the continuing statelessness and marginalization of the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in northern Rakhine State in western Burma, bordering Bangladesh.
The state, one of the poorest and most isolated in Burma, is home to some 800,000 Rohingyas, surely ranked among the world’s most persecuted and forgotten people, on a par with the Romas in Europe and the Hmongs in Laos. They have been condemned to remain stateless, with neither home nor citizenship, popping up on the world’s consciousness only when a humanitarian crisis or tragedy strikes.
The most recent occurred in January 2011 when yet another boatload of Rohingyas was detained in Thai waters and subsequently towed away by the Thai Navy, and without engine, food, or water, left to die in the open sea.
Statelessness affecting Rohingyas is especially serious, one of the worst cases in the world. They are denied access to Burma 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 as an identity document instead of the Citizenship Scrutiny Card that full citizens hold. Rohingyas are related to the Bengalis in Chittagong, Bangladesh, leading the Burma government to claim they are ethnic Bengalis from India who arrived unchecked during British rule and more recently from Bangladesh, thus forfeiting any legitimate claim to Burma citizenship.
The Rohingyas suffer from serious state discrimination and degrading practices including arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labor and portering, arbitrary taxation, extortion, requiring permission for travel even between villages, requiring state authorization to marry, expropriation of property and poor access to higher education. Not surprisingly, many Rohingyas try to flee, making the desperate and dangerous journey in overcrowded and rickety boats to seek asylum and a better life in Thailand, Malaysia and Australia.
It is difficult to understand the origin of Burma’s animosity toward the Rohingyas other than undercurrents of racism and Islamophobia based on their darker skin and Muslim identity in an overwhelmingly Buddhist-centric state. While the Rohingyas’ general isolation from the mainstream ethnic Rakhine or Bamar population is a contributing factor, it is not substantially different from the fractious ethnic relations and isolation of other minorities.
Reasons of national security and illegal immigration are poor excuses for such treatment as Rakhine State, like other Burma border regions, is populated on both sides of the state line by members of the same ethnic group with the accompanying cross-border population movement and trade and family ties. Further, Muslim armed resistance has been insignificant since the 1950s and never did compare with the well-established ethnic armed groups in Kachin, Kayin, and Shan states.
Although citizenship laws, mainly the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, do not exclude Rohingyas from acquiring naturalized citizenship, in practice, the overwhelming majority hold only temporary documents or are without any documents. Those who manage to acquire naturalized or full citizenship rely on individual connections. Though technically legally obtained, they risk being accused of falsely acquiring identity documents as the policy is that all “Bengalis” in Rakhine State are entitled only to the temporary documents.
One of the main reasons why some Rohingyas have demanded they be recognized as a national ethnic group and be granted citizenship by birth is that anything less opens the possibility of revocation. However, Rohingyas, who do not have the means or connections to acquire better documentation but need it to ease travel and work still welcome the possibility of naturalized citizenship.
In order to break the statelessness impasse, the most realistic way forward is through naturalized citizenship. If given the opportunity, Rohingyas should take advantage of the ongoing democratic transition in Burma to solidify their citizenship status rather than wait for national ethnic group recognition, which is highly improbable, if not impossible.
There are murmurings that the Burma government may be considering naturalized citizenship or some status other than permanent residency for the Rohingyas. Such a move would be consistent with current citizenship practices as the immigration authorities have, over the last few years, made commendable efforts to provide citizenship documents, primarily naturalized citizenship to people of Indian origin in Burma who also have indeterminate citizenship status. Further, it does not make good policy to exclude only the Rohingyas as Indian origin Hindus in Rakhine State with similar eligibility are granted naturalized citizenship.
Naturalized citizenship would go some way toward reducing the arbitrary and discriminatory practices affecting the Rohingyas. Unless restrictive caveats remain, it would improve their ability to travel, to acquire a passport and to have better access to higher education. Indian origin Hindus in Rakhine State who recently obtained naturalized citizenship have said they are now able to travel more freely.
More significantly, the citizenship laws provide that after three generations, all descendants of naturalized citizens shall be granted full citizenship.
Despite decades of international criticism, the Burma government has consistently refused to accept that Rohingyas are anything more than permanent residents, and even that view is grudgingly held.
The thought that Rohingyas will suddenly be accepted as a national ethnic group cannot be taken seriously. There is no public or political support from any ethnic group or from national stakeholders including opposition and exile groups, and certainly not from the majority ethnic Rakhine in Rakhine State where deep suspicion and hostility remain. Further, Rohingya groups are usually isolated and excluded from multilateral discussions within Burma and even among exile movements.
The Rohingyas should seize the current opportunity and ride the ongoing democratic wave, failing which they will once again be left behind. Of course naturalized citizenship is not on a par with national ethnic group recognition, but at present it remains the most realistic and workable solution to their statelessness.
By Eric Paulsen co-founder and adviser to Lawyers for Liberty, a human rights and law reform organization based in Malaysia. He has researched statelessness in Bangladesh, Nepal, and most recently in Burma.