The narrative of statelessness in Myanmar
By Sonu Trivedi
The historic conflict between the Muslims and Rakhines in the Rakhine State of Myanmar has complicated the religious landscape and aggravated tensions, where the Rohingya Muslim faces ethnic and religious discrimination. Added to this, in the new political scene, the rise of Buddhist nationalism has become a significant socio-political force in Myanmar.
The narrative of statelessness relates to this particular question of Rohingya, a serious concern which is linked to the entire debate on citizenship and identification of this ethnic nationality and also about their uncertain future in Myanmar. The narrative brings to light complex issues of statelessness, recognition and dilemma of Rohingya in the internal dynamics of the nation. Approximately one million Rohingya Muslims live in Rakhine State, while 250,000 or more who have fled persecution and are now living in neighbouring countries (such as Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia).
Owing to their stateless status, they are vulnerable to various kinds of prejudice and abuse. The plight of their women and children has been deplorable. Deprived of basic human rights and livelihood opportunities, they have been subjected to all kinds of exploitation and extreme discrimination. Due to lack of proper education, healthcare, sanitation and other social security measures, they remain the most excluded social group in Myanmar. According to UNHCR, the conditions of IDP camps are deteriorating, and the ability of humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance has been severely limited. It is assisting more than 800,000 people without citizenship in the Rakhine state. The levels of human sufferings in these camps are also worsening bit by bit.
In the controversial 2014 census, Rohingya was not included in the list of 135 official ethnic groups in Myanmar and were given the option to ‘self identify’ themselves. The government continues to move forward with its ‘nationality verification process’ post 2014 census, which requires them to identify themselves as “Bengali” in order to obtain citizenship. Rohingya were excluded in 1983 census as well. The 1982 Citizenship Law has designated citizens into three categories: (1) full citizens, (2) associate citizens, and (3) naturalized citizens. None of the categories applies to the Rohingya as they are not recognized as one of the 135 “national races” by the Myanmar government. They have been declared as “non-national” or “foreign residents.” But Rohingya groups insist they have lived in Myanmar for generations. According to Amb Derek Tonkin, “some 95% of all Muslims resident in Rakhine are of Bengali origin, although this may well go back many generations and in some cases even centuries.”
In the wake of the alleged violence and repression (since 2012) in the Rakhine state, more than 200 Rohingya have been killed and approximately 140,000 have been displaced as a result of the communal clash between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rakhine Muslims. Apart from appointment of an investigation commission, no direct attempt has been made to solve the issue so far. Humanitarian assistance, relief and rehabilitation effort seems to be rather discriminatory so far as the biasness towards a particular community is concerned. While, President Thein Sein, pledged to consider new rights for the stateless Rohingya, but the promise falls short of any commitment towards full citizenship rights. Democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi has also failed to take an obvious stand on this subject. In the absence of any clear-cut policy of the government on citizenship laws, the entire issue has been aggravated and demands immediate intervention both by the government and the international community.
It has been alleged as an attempt of ethnic cleansing by the Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar. However, it may be recalled that the “Burmese Way of Socialism” —an integration of Buddhism, Nationalism and Socialism, adopted by General Ne Win in the wake of military rule in 1962 resulted in isolation of the regime and made it a hermit kingdom. The same blunder is being repeated by the present regime of the nascent democracy. This oversight may result in severe fault lines which may adversely affect the social fabric of the nation.
The sectarian violence between the Buddhist majority and Islamic minority in Myanmar is no longer an internal affair of Myanmar alone. Given the demographic challenges and distribution of population in the region, what is supposed to be in “majority” in Myanmar is actually a “minority” in the adjoining countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and vice-a-versa. It is unfortunate that the way this majority-minority divide has flared up various communities is going to be disastrous for the Indo-pacific region. Concerns have also been raised about the violence among Myanmar nationals in Malaysia and Indonesia. These have radicalised Muslims outside Myanmar which has resulted in retaliation and retribution and its spillover effect is going to affect the region badly.
In the light of the clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in the Rakhine state, as well as in central and northeastern Myanmar since mid 2013 and the alleged plans of radical groups to target Buddhist installations in neighbouring countries has taken an ugly shape. The issue of “citizenship” for Rohingya and ‘recognition’ are essential to ending the violence in Rakhine state. The U.N. considers Rohingya to be among the world’s most persecuted minorities. In December 2014, it had passed a resolution urging Myanmar to grant citizenship rights to them. Nevertheless, the announcement by the government (in February 2015) of immediate suspension of their temporary IDs by 31st March have dashed all hopes of political representation and voting rights in the elections scheduled in the later part of this year.
The controversial family planning law passed recently further aims at marginalising them. Under this legislation, local authorities can ask the central government to impose laws making it compulsory for women to wait “at least 36 months” after giving birth before having another child. There has also been a call for protecting race and religion in Myanmar against alleged speculation of safeguarding the Buddhist women from entering into inter-religious marriages. The family planning law principally, has been seen by activists as being discriminatory against women and minorities largely, for the Rohingya community. Furthermore, the draft law which poses legal hurdles for Buddhists from marrying Muslims has aggravated this “majority-minority divide” in Myanmar, mostly, so far as issues related to women’s rights and religious freedom.
Though an advocate of democracy, but the silent voice of democratic icon Daw Suu Kyi has not been effective in solving the issue at hand. The religion which stands for non-violence and tolerance has turned out to be a paradox for itself. In the midst of trials and tribulations, the religion has contradicted its basic belief and conviction and has been put to litmus test in the land of Golden Pagodas!
Sonu Trivedi teaches Political Science in Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi