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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 9, 2012

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Nowhere to go for the Rohingya
By Phil Radford

You'd imagine that refugees fleeing violence, with no material possessions, would cling to two bare prospects. The first, their homeland; and the hope of one day resuming life in their own home and county. The other, a refuge; and the hope of reaching, quickly, some place of safety where they or aid agencies can assemble shelter and supplies so life isn't an hourly struggle against uncertainty.

Pity, then, the uniquely awful plight of up to 100,000 Muslim Rohingya of Rakhine province, Myanmar (Burma), fleeing renewed sectarian violence last week: for them, neither prospect is in store. Without official recognition as an ethnic people of Myanmar, the Rohingya don't qualify for citizenship, and under


current citizenship legislation they never will. As far as the government, the majority Tibeto-Burman population, and fellow Rakhinese are concerned, the Rohingya are just immigrants from Bangladesh - and recent ones at that. 

Nor as they flee burned-out homes can the Rohingya turn for help to their supposed country of origin. As a grudging host for waves of Rohingya refugees since 1978, Bangladesh has had enough. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina insists, the Rohingya are "... not the Bangladeshi People's responsibility ....they are their [Myanmar] citizens. It's up to them. " In June, the country effectively closed its borders to refugees and security forces can now be seen turning away boats trying to cross the broad Naf river estuary that demarcates the southerly Bangladesh-Myanmar border.

The Rohingya's stateless quandary leapt to prominence in early June when communal violence erupted between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine, in the western, coastal state of Rakhine, formally Arakan. A rape led to a lynching, that led to riot, that led to mob warfare across the state. On June 10, the government declared a state of emergency, but the presence of troops did little to stem Rohingya panic.

By the end of July, the main international relief agency present, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated there were a total of 75,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Rakhine , with many seeking shelter in camps around the state capital Sittwe and at Kyauktaw, up the Kaladan river towards Bangladesh.

After a lull, violence erupted again on October 21. A UNHCR and an inter-agency mission that toured affected areas on October 27-8 reported widespread destruction and displacement, but also reported that many of the coastal and mountainous areas affected by violence are extremely hard to reach.

Speaking in Bangkok on November 2, UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Chan said, "Right now, we are facing a massive emergency." The organisation said 3,000 Rohingya were travelling in boats towards Sittwe, but the city, formerly with a mixed population of 200,000, is now empty of Muslims, and food prices around refugee camps on the outskirts have doubled. Meanwhile, 6,000 Rohingya are stranded on boats or islets along the Myanmar coast, and unknown numbers have fled to the hills. If the pattern of previous crises is repeated, over 250,000 may now seek refuge in Bangladesh.

Not Bengali; not Burmese
For the Rohingya, straddling post-colonial borders, losing one nationality was a predictable misfortune. Losing two was a matter of calculated, official carelessness - in the most literal sense.

The rocky road began back in the 1960's, during General Ne Win's "Burmanisation" campaign. Eager to clear up racial business left over from Burma's British days, when Indian and Chinese traders swanned across the border, Ne Win's Revolutionary Council embarked on a campaign of nationalization. Confiscating their businesses ensured the ethnically-foreign enterprising classes got the message. Approximately 300,000 Indians and 100,000 Chinese fled, hobbling vital rice and timber export industries and ensuring vital goods like medicine and petrol were in short supply.
To ensure these "foreigners" didn't return, and to give Burmanisation official meaning, the government passed an Emergency Immigration Act in 1974. This required all citizens to carry identity cards (registration cards), which neatly gave the military government the practical means of saying who was and was not entitled to Burmese nationality. The Rohingya weren't, they got "Foreign Registration Cards".

At this stage, citizenship-stripping proved more ominous than critical to Rohingya. They lived in a remote part of a rebellious province, largely outside the realm of official Burma. For two decades after independence, Arakan/Rakhine separatists had fought with the Rangoon government and armed Rohingya Jihadi occasionally lent a hand. But during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ne Win, his generals and their Burma Socialist Programme Party extended central control over some of Burma's recalcitrant provinces, including Arakan. Non-citizens found their rights to travel and marry curtailed, and then citizenship started to matter very much indeed.

In 1982, parliament passed the Burma Citizenship Law, which is still in effect. The 1982 Act removed long-term residency (one grandparent, pre-1942) as the main qualifying factor for citizenship, and replaced it with race. Henceforth, "... only peoples and ethnic groups settled ... within the state as their permanent home for a period anterior to [prior to] 1823 ..." qualified for full citizenship. To prevent a quest for ancestry bringing the country to a shuddering halt, the government then listed all the ethnic groups thus settled - there are 135 today - and left the Rohingya off the list.

The act does make provision for citizenship by descent, although it has to be 100% parental/grandparental descent. If one parent is not a citizen, then you have to prove both of their parents were. But even if this stipulation were relaxed, so that de jure ancestral citizenship sufficed for an application, the Rohingya would still remain beyond the pale. According to Burma insurgency and ethnicity specialist, Martin Smith, no accurate ethnic or religious census was ever undertaken in the region. So retrospective citizen recognition is also a non-starter.

Meanwhile the Rohingya can't hold out for Bangladesh citizenship either. Under the jus sanguinis principle of Bangladesh citizenship law, your parentage, rather than your place of birth, is the critical criteria for citizenship. A child born of parents who are non-Bangladeshi, stateless or of unknown nationality, cannot acquire Bangladesh nationality, even if born inside Bangladesh. In any case, Bangladesh hasn't the resources to embark on the mammoth effort of working out where or to whom Rohingya were born. And the country has enough citizens, thanks.

So for the hapless Rohingya, it's all far too late. In February 2011, the UNHCR estimated there were approximately 800,000 Rohingya with no citizenship, out of a total population of perhaps one million. The sheer scales of this non-citizenry has encouraged the Myanmar government to air some truly nasty solutions: "It is impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingya, who are not our ethnicity," Myanmar President Thein Sein told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres. On July 11, he suggested the only solution to the sectarian strife was for his country to expel all the Rohingya, and then perhaps the UN could resettle them to a third country. The UN declined.

History is not bunk...
Of course, President Thein Sein might be right. It is possible that many Rohingya are of recent Bangladeshi origin; that they have left a peaceful, Muslim-majority homeland to settle in violent, sectarian, northern Rakhine, passing waves of obtuse refugees along the way, to enjoy a life of civil discrimination, almost non-existent health services (outside Sittwe), and travel and marriage restrictions that are an open invitation to bribery. History, as well as common sense, suggests otherwise. While Bengali Muslim have certainly migrated to Rakhine state, they have also maintained a permanent, well-documented presence there for centuries.

In 2002, Israeli ex-foreign official Moshe Yegar included a detailed, referenced account of Bengali settlement in Arakan, in a comprehensive history of Muslim communities in Southeast Asia. According to Moshe, Arakan hosted thriving Muslim trading and seafaring communities as far back as ninth century (CE); they served in Burmese armies, and from roughly 1400-1600, the kings of Arakan adorned themselves with Muslim titles.

In 1799, a well-travelled Scottish linguist and surveyor, Francis Buchanan, published an analysis of Burmese languages in Arakan in the official journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. In it, he refers to two communities of "Mohamedans" in the area, one of which spoke a Hindu dialect, and which had "long settled in Arakan". He says they called themselves, "Rooinga" - which he translates as "natives of Arakan". Incidentally, Buchanan also observed communal division alive and well 200 years ago. He says the "real" natives of Arakan called these Bengali Muslims, "Kuluaw Yakan", which he translated as "Strange Arakan".

More recent observations on the historic ethnic make-up of Arakan is provided by the notes of one P Murray, of the British Foreign Office, who claimed to have spent two years in the area during World War II, and deposited his observations with the UK Commonwealth Relations Office in January 1949. He comments that in 1941, nearly one-third of the inhabitants of Akyab (now Sittwe) district were, "Chittagongian Muslims", that they were mainly concentrated in the northern part of the state, and that they spoke a "debased" form of Bengali, mixed with Portuguese, Arabic and Arakanese. 

Continued 1 2  

US's lost moral compass in Myanmar (Oct 30, '12)

Islamic militants take aim at Myanmar (Jul 27, '12)

Fleeing Rohingyas driven from safety (Jun 16, '12)


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