Burma Briefing Rohingya citizenship: now or never?
23 July 2018.
The denial of citizenship to the Rohingya people is one of the foundation stones which underpins prejudice and violence against the Rohingya. By denying Rohingya citizenship, the government is officially saying that they are foreign to Burma, and do not belong in the country. In the mind of many in Burma this in turn justifies prejudice against them, and for some, even justifies the most horrific human rights violations. Challenging prejudice and changing attitudes may take generations to address but this process cannot begin until the citizenship issue is addressed. The single most important step the government of Burma can take to begin a process of ensuring safe return for Rohingya is to reform or replace the 1982 Citizenship Law and give citizenship to all Rohingya.
Rather than insisting on this, the international community has now returned to compromise language about ‘pathways to citizenship’ for the Rohingya.
There is no time left for this approach. In practice there may now only be a window of 12-18 months where the Rohingya citizenship issue could finally be addressed. After this time, the election cycle and political changes in the country may mean there will never again be the opportunity that exists right now.
Aung San Suu Kyi is probably at the peak of her powers. She won the last election with a huge landslide. As State Counsellor she is the most powerful person in the NLD-led government. Government Ministers are afraid to act within their portfolios without specific instructions from her. NLD MPs in Parliament are unable or unwilling to challenge to criticise government policies. She has an iron grip over her Ministers, her MPs and the NLD, the most popular political party in the country. Her reputation has fallen internationally, but within Burma she has not just the respect but also the trust and love of a huge number of people. She enjoys a level of admiration politicians in others countries can only dream of.
It is clear that Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t want to change the 1982 Citizenship Law. If she wanted to, she could push through a change in the law at any time. She has the parliamentary majority she needs and the military could not stop her. The military have no desire for a coup over this issue. They know they would lose everything they have gained if they did. Sanctions would be re-imposed, the population would turn against them, their future at risk once again.
There is no doubt that the majority of people in the country would be unhappy at Rohingya being given citizenship. It will cost votes, but how many? If it is in the direct run-up to the election it would have more of an impact. But if the law is changed this year, will it be what people are thinking about when they go to the polling stations in two years’ time? Unlikely. The uproar will have died down. People will find their lives haven’t changed for the worse because the Rohingya now have citizenship.
The military backed government tried to use Buddhist nationalism against the NLD in the last election, with Ma Ba Tha travelling the length and breadth of the country preaching how the NLD were servants of Muslims. It didn’t work. As one Rohingya activists described it, people went to the polls with hope, not hate, in their hearts. Prejudice against the Rohingya is endemic, but it isn’t the first concern people have when they wake up in the morning. If the government were to change the law enabling all Rohingya to have citizenship, and at the same time took action on those promoting hate speech as well as stopping their own anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim propaganda, it would start to change the political atmosphere as well. This is essential for peace and reconciliation.
Only international pressure will persuade Aung San Suu Kyi to act on citizenship, but pressure is not being applied in the right direction. Instead, the focus regarding citizenship has been on implementing recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission chaired by Kofi Annan.
On citizenship, the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations made last year were a compromise. The Commission was dominated by members from Burma, and Rohingya were excluded. At the time, it may have seemed like a success to get the recommendations on citizenship as strong as they were, and to have Aung San Suu Kyi commit to implementing them.
One year on though, the situation is different. One factor is the attitude of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, now more clearly revealed. Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the two military offensives against the Rohingya and subsequent international criticism has been extreme. She has banned the UN Fact Funding Mission, the UN Special Rapporteur, and human rights activists and journalists from the country. She has supported repression of media and journalists critical of government policy or exposing human rights violations. She has gone ahead with plans for giant prison camps for returning Rohingya, built in part with money stolen from a World Bank grant intended for disaster relief. It is clear the intention is not to implement this recommendation, but rather draw out the process as long as possible. Government officials repeatedly state that they will not change the Citizenship Law.
These facts make it clear that the argument previously made that Aung San Suu Kyi was being restrained from action by public opinion are false. She and senior members of her government clearly share prejudice against the Rohingya. They are part of the problem. They are keeping and implementing discriminatory laws and policies against the Rohingya. Efforts to implement the Rakhine Commission recommendations lack transparency and do not appear to be being implemented beyond a tick box exercise to placate the international community.
Another factor is the political calendar within Burma.
Instead of a clear recommendation to reform or repeal the Citizenship Law and grant citizenship to Rohingya, the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommends that the Burmese government implements the current 1982 Citizenship Law.
This law violates international law and Burma’s treaty obligations, such as those in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Rakhine Commission itself admits this, stating: “Several aspects of the 1982 Citizenship Law are not in compliance with international standards and norms – such as the principle of non-discrimination under international law – as well as international treaties signed by Myanmar. Most notably, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).”
The Rakhine Commission, is therefore, urging the government of Burma to more fully implement a law that violates international law.
The Rakhine Commission recommendation of an “acceleration of the citizenship verification process…under the 1982 Citizenship Law” is unacceptable to Rohingya. There is no legal requirement for the government of Burma to have to go through this process. It’s another delaying tactic. A process that could be drawn out for years. Read more ›