Burma Raises Prospect of Rohingya Citizenship

By Sarnata Reynolds
A father and child living in a settlement for displaced Rohingya.
In an interview with The Hindu newspaper this week, Burmese Minister of Information U Ang Kyi said that his government is attempting to address the ongoing violence in Rakhine State through the development of a "win-win solution for all stakeholders." Acknowledging that treating the stateless Rohingya as trespassers was an underlying problem that needed to be addressed, he said the government was considering a process whereby “third-generation” Rohingya could acquire citizenship.

This would not be an extraordinary act. As the minister acknowledged, Burma’s nationality law already provides the right to citizenship to individuals whose parents and grandparents were born in Burma. It is an extraordinary step, however, for the minister to concede publicly that the government’s error has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya being treated as foreign nationals – except worse, since they are seen as unwanted intruders in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live.

One would hope that the conferral of citizenship would help prevent further persecution of the Rohingya and stop the spread of burnings and displacement in Rakhine State. However, the government will need to take many more steps before this can happen.

First, there are procedural questions that must be resolved. As has been widely reported, tens of thousands of Rohingya homes in Rakhine State have been burned over the last five months. Some of the internally displaced Rohingya that RI met in September said that any documentary proof that their grandparents and parents resided in Burma was destroyed in the recent fires, which gutted entire neighborhoods. Others said they had no inter-generational proof of residence at all.

This is not surprising. Well before Burma’s 1982 citizenship law formally stripped them of their citizenship, the Rohingya were subjected to extreme discrimination. They had no access to health care, so most would not have any proof of hospital visits or treatments during that time. Deprived of the right to own property, most did not have land deeds or leases. Children had no right to attend school, so there are no transcripts of grades dating back decades. And while mosques might have held records of births, deaths, or marriages, many have now been burned and their files destroyed.

In brief, the problem is this: How does someone prove that her parents and grandparents lived in Burma when none of them existed in any legally-verifiable way? Certainly, the Burmese government should provide third-generation Rohingya residents with citizenship. But for this to be a viable option, the government should create a streamlined system that accepts evidence the Rohingya might actually possess – such as statements by individual applicants, relatives, religious leaders, neighbors, and others who have known the family for many years. The process should not be overly burdensome, and the Rohingya – indeed, all individuals pursuing citizenship in Burma – should have the right to appeal applications that are denied.

The second problem is that the Burmese government has not yet come to grips with who the Rohingya really are and where they are from. Without this understanding, any policies the government proposes will inevitably fall short. Burma's information minister has said he does not know what to do about hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who are regarded by the Rakhine community as Bengali migrants rather than inter-generational residents of the country. But this theory of the Rohingya's origins is, frankly, absurd, and the views of some Rakhine people should neither trump the right to nationality nor dictate government policy.

Rakhine State is the second-poorest in all of Burma, with acute rates of malnutrition and a stagnant economy; hardly an attractive destination for economic migrants. More than that, Rohingya in Rakhine State are treated as pariahs, subjected to state-sanctioned persecution, and treated as stateless individuals. Why would any person – let alone hundreds of thousands of individuals – subject themselves and their children to that kind of fate? There is no doubt that Burma’s government is under pressure to show sympathy with the ethnic Rakhine, who take the most hardline views of Rohingya among all Burmese. But trying to assuage their concerns by perpetuating falsehoods about the Rohingya’s origins will neither improve the Rohingya’s situation nor ease the fury of Rakhine partisans.

The truth is that the vast majority of Rohingya have genuine and effective ties to Burma – either because they were born or lived most of their lives there, or because they descend from ancestors who lived there. As such, they have the right to be recognized as citizens. Regardless of what the government says, it is unlikely that the Rakhine community will view any citizenship proposal as a “win-win” absent significant inducements. That is why, with the financial and technical assistance of the international community, Burma’s government should commit to the robust economic, social, and political development of Rakhine State. This would not only act as an incentive for the Rakhine community, but also go some way toward ending decades of socio-economic neglect that has fueled inter-communal resentment for generations.