Restoring Rohingya citizenship in Myanmar
At the time of Burmese independence, the Rohingya were full citizens and known as Arakanese. They were active in public life in Burma in the early years of independence. Tragically, the Rohingya people became victims of a gradual and systematic loss of citizenship. They have been deprived of the universal right to a nationality despite their heritage as a native community of Myanmar.
This problem is complicated by the fact that Myanmar is home to one of the largest undocumented populations in the world, with an estimated 25% of its population lacking a legal identity. The international community needs to facilitate the peace process in Myanmar by demanding reforms to its citizenship law; helping to hold an inclusive national census; and ensuring the removal of any apartheid-like conditions imposed after the 2012 communal violence.
The principles of broad and inclusive citizenship were laid down in the 1947 Burmese constitution. On June 16, 1947, premier Aung San of British Burma addressed the constituent assembly and envisioned the future Union of Burma. He promised equality for “all the peoples of the Union.”
In his speech, Aung San said that “this Historic Land of Burma shall attain its rightful and honoured place in the world, making its full and willing contribution to the advancement and welfare of mankind and affirm its devotion to the ideal of peace and friendly cooperation amongst nations founded on international justice and morality.”
Aung San himself was an army veteran whose daughter Aung San Suu Kyi would later become Burma’s leading politician. Aung San was assassinated on July 19, 1947.
The 1947 constitution came into effect when the Union of Burma became independent on January 4, 1948. Section 11 of the 1947 constitution enshrined birthright citizenship (jus soli) and citizenship by descent (jus sanguinis). Arakanese Muslims, who formed a quarter of Arakan’s populace and the largest group among Burmese-born Muslims, were entitled to full citizenship. Migrants from other parts of the British Empire who lived in Burma for at least eight years were also entitled to citizenship.
The Union Citizenship (Election) Act in 1948 recognized eight indigenous groups in the country, including the “Arakanese, Burmese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon, or Shan.” The Arakanese encompassed Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians alike.
Rohingya in public life
The Rohingya were described as “Arakanese,” “Arakanese Muslim,” or “Arakani Muslim.” In the early years of independence, Arakanese Muslim MPs and ministers vouched for a separate administrative unit in the northern part of Arakan State. They also campaigned for provincial autonomy.
The colloquial term “Rohingya” itself began to be popularized. The Rohingya Students Union was formed in the University of Rangoon. The Rohingya were cited in the official encyclopaedia of the Burmese government. The Guardian newspaper published writings on Rohingya cultural history between 1959 and 1966. The Rohingya language was spoken on Burmese state radio between 1961 and 1965. Rohingya broadcasts were included in the category of indigenous language programming.
On September 25, 1954, Prime Minister U Nu specifically referred to the Rohingya as nationals of Burma during a radio broadcast. On July 4, 1961, Brigadier General Aung Gyi encouraged the Rohingya to be patriotic citizens; he also compared northern Arakan with the Sino-Burmese border where people of Chinese ethnicity live on Burmese territory.
Prime Minister U Nu conceded to demands for a separate administrative unit in northern Arakan. The Mayu Frontier Administration was established on May 1, 1961 and covered Rohingya majority townships. The zone was administered by appointees of the Union Government in Rangoon. The Rohingya were important rice cultivators in Arakan. Burma was the rice basket of Asia. Arakan generated a significant share of Burmese rice exports.
Loss of citizenship
In 1962, a military coup overthrew the civilian government of Burma. The coup ended the country’s era of parliamentary democracy and ushered in an authoritarian regime. The junta began promoting xenophobia. After the coup, the use of the term “Rohingya” in official parlance died out. The Mayu Frontier Administration was dissolved in 1964.
By the 1970s, Burma was under the grip of an exclusionary nationalist project. In 1974, military ruler Ne Win enacted a new constitution. The 1974 constitution watered down the broad criteria for citizenship seen in the 1947 constitution. It also replaced the term “Arakanese” with “Rakhine.”
In 1978, an ostensibly styled census resulted in military operations against the Rohingya. An estimated 200,000 Rohingya refugees took shelter in Bangladesh during the crackdown. Most of the refugees later returned after a repatriation agreement which did not address Rohingya human rights.
Burma continued with its discrimination against the Rohingya. In 1982, the Burma Citizenship Law omitted the term “Arakanese” and labelled only the Rakhine as an indigenous community. It also required residents to prove their ancestors lived in Burma prior to 1823, the year of the First Anglo-Burmese War.
In essence, Burma was denying the long history of the Rohingya as a native community. It accused the ethnic group of intruding into Burma during British rule in spite of the fact that migration to Arakan was lawful and state-sponsored during the colonial period.
The Burma Citizenship Law created three tiers of citizenship, including full citizenship, associate citizenship, and naturalized citizenship. Full citizenship is reserved only for members of the eight indigenous groups. A list of 135 sub-groups also emerged. Both the list of eight indigenous groups and 135 sub-groups exclude the Rohingya. In 1989, the names “Arakan” and “Burma” were replaced by “Rakhine State” and “Myanmar” respectively.
The 2014 Myanmar Census List divided the Rakhine into seven sub-groups, which included the tiny Muslim Kaman community. The recognition of solely the Kaman at the expense of the Rohingya is often used to justify Myanmar’s claims that no discrimination exists towards Muslims.
Associate and naturalized citizens are the second and third tiers of citizenship. Both categories have inferior legal rights than full citizens. The Burma Citizenship Law empowers the government to arbitrarily confer or remove the citizenship of a person. The law allows the government to not provide any explanation for its decisions.
Documentation involves issuing different colour-coded ID cards. Full citizens have received pink cards. Associate citizens have received blue cards. Naturalized citizens have received green cards. Monks have received brown cards. Temporary residents have received white cards.
In 2015, white cards were revoked in favour of so-called National Verification Cards (NVCs). White card holders were previously allowed to vote in elections during the 1990s and 2000s. In February 2015, white card holders were disqualified from being voters ahead of the national election. NVC holders do not have the right to vote.
Myanmar has been offering NVCs to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as part of the repatriation process. The refugees have strongly objected to the issuance of NVCs as they would settle for nothing short of full citizenship. The NVC is now one of the main stumbling blocks to the Bangladesh-Myanmar repatriation process and the right of return of Rohingya refugees.
Myanmar continues to insist that documents be provided to prove if a person’s ancestors lived in the country before 1823 in order to be given full citizenship. This has proven to be a difficult if not impossible task for the Rohingya. Any individual would find it hard to provide documents for ancestors who lived a century ago. The Rohingya have struggled to keep pace with the ever-changing criteria of Myanmar citizenship.
It is therefore necessary for Myanmar to reform its citizenship law. While citizenship law is an internal matter for any country, given that Myanmar’s citizenship law is having cross-border repercussions, it is necessary for the international community to intervene and demand reform.
Myanmar is home to one of the largest undocumented populations in the world. An estimated one fourth of the population lack proper citizenship documents. Longstanding residents continue to be undocumented because of bureaucracy, ethnic discrimination, arbitrary misuse of power, and corruption. In 2014, an estimated 11 million people in Myanmar lacked documents verifying their citizenship status. 25% of residents in Myanmar have an ambiguous legal identity.
Since independence in 1948, Myanmar has held only three nationwide censuses, including in 1973, 1983, and 2014. In sharp contrast, Bangladesh has held five censuses since independence in 1971, including in 1974, 1981, 1991, 2001, and 2011.
The undocumented population largely includes the Rohingya and people of Chinese and Indian descent. The Rohingya are the most persecuted group within Myanmar’s undocumented population.
The international community can facilitate the holding of an inclusive national census in Myanmar. A solution to the Rohingya crisis will have to involve an inclusive census by Myanmar.
The threshold for apartheid in international law includes conditions similar to the practices of apartheid era South Africa. In Rakhine State today, the Rohingya face severe restrictions on freedom of movement; segregated health care; and limited opportunities for education. The Rohingya are also subjected to birth control policies. Many of these conditions were imposed in the wake of the June 2012 communal violence between the Rohingya and Rakhine.
The Rohingya are treated in separate hospital wards in Rakhine State in a manner similar to the practice of segregated hospital wards in pre-1994 South Africa. The security perimeter in northern Rakhine State means that the Rohingya are hardly able to travel to other parts of the country. They often need to buy travel permits to travel beyond checkpoints in northern Rakhine State.
The Rohingya and Rakhine once interacted daily in bazaars. Today, the Rohingya are not able to access mixed bazaars and marketplaces. They have to purchase essentials from merchants at distorted prices.
The lack of citizenship documents complicates land ownership in northern Rakhine State. Historically, the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and a part of Rathedaung were dominated by Rohingya land owners. Arakanese Muslims are recorded as the historic inhabitants of these townships.
In 1886-87, the non-Rakhine constituted 70% of the population in Naaf River Township (now Maungdaw). They owned 79% of cultivated land and 84% of tax-paying landed property. Unfortunately, their descendants are not being given legal documents by the state of Myanmar.
The 1982 Burma Citizenship Law is used by Myanmar to argue that communities who did not live in Burma prior to 1823 are not entitled to rights like voting and land ownership. But the Rohingya are a pre-colonial native community with a rich heritage that received further impetus during British rule.
Moreover, the 1947 constitution meant that all permanent residents in Myanmar at the time of independence in 1948 were entitled to full citizenship. Subsequent laws aimed at differentiating between pre-1823 and post-1823 communities were manifestly unconstitutional. The 1947 constitution remains the most democratic constitution in Myanmar’s history.
The peace process
The peace process in Myanmar has been upended by the Tatmadaw’s coup on February 1, 2021. The opposition National Unity Government is promoting an armed struggle against the junta led by Min Aung Hlaing, who in 2017 wrote on Facebook:
“The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job despite the efforts of previous governments to solve it. The government in office is taking great care in solving the problem.”
Min Aung Hlaing is criminally liable for his role in the 2016-17 crackdown against the Rohingya. He was also banned from Facebook.
The National Unity Government is showing encouraging signs of embracing the Rohingya. But concrete commitments need to be made regarding the restoration of full citizenship for the Rohingya, including land and voting rights; and an end to apartheid-like conditions imposed in 2012.
In 1947, premier Aung San talked about international justice and morality. He spoke of advancing the welfare of mankind in his historic land of Burma. The Rohingya deserve justice. The restoration of Rohingya citizenship is a moral imperative. The Rohingya have ardently campaigned for freedom within the framework of Myanmar’s laws, democratic politics, territorial integrity, and sovereignty.
Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.