Myanmar officials have rejected proposals to reform the 1982 Citizenship Act to include Rohingya muslims.
The stateless Rohingyas are being registered at the Bangladesh border as refugees without any clear indication of safe repatriation back to Rakhine state in Myanmar.
The western coastal Rakhine state of Myanmar has faced turmoil since the 1982 Citizenship Act left scores of Rohingya Muslims stateless in the predominantly Buddhist country. When Burma received independence it did not list the Rohingyas among the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Waves of refugees have been fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh as the Burmese military instigated violence in 2012 and 2015, culminating in ethnic cleansing in August of 2017. Rohingya refugees reported killings, burnings, looting and rape, in response to militant attacks on security forces.
Houses and crops have been set on fire while the government remains tight-lipped on the situation. Restrictions on movement and access to healthcare have further added to their woes. Those who survive the arduous walk or ferry to the shores of Bangladesh are met with poor living conditions and an uncertainty about their future. Many South East Asian countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand are said to have denied asylum to stranded boats of refugees.
The international community has expressed its concern over the plight of the Rohingya Muslims and the escalating violence. International condemnation led to the first UN public meeting on the matter in eight years. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the violence in the region has "spiraled into the world's fastest-developing refugee emergency, a humanitarian and human rights nightmare." He added, “We've received bone-chilling accounts from those who fled, mainly women, children and the elderly.”
Doctors without Borders have revealed that at least 9,000 Rohingya Muslims had been killed between August and September due to this violence.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees now residing in Bangladesh may be repatriated back into the Rakhine State as a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Myanmar, UN High Commission for Refugees and UN Development Programme has been signed. The terms of the MoU allow for the UNHCR and UNDP to access Rakhine State with areas of refugee origin and possible return so as to carry out protective measures. Proof of identification, not equal to citizenship, will be provided which has not been met positively for Rohingya activists fighting for full citizenship.
Recently, European Union as well as Canada have in coordination announced sanctions against seven senior Myanmar officials over the Rohingya crisis.
Dozens of refugees queued up at a UNHCR office at the Nayapara camp, which overlooks the Myanmar border, providing fingerprints, iris scans and other information to officials. The white registration cards refugees are being given have the logo of both the UNHCR and the Bangladesh government, and state: "This person should be protected from forcible return to a country where he/she would face threats to his/her life or freedom.”
Buddhist-majority Myanmar refers to Rohingyas as “Bengalis”, a term they reject as it implies they are interlopers from Bangladesh, despite a long history in the country.
In 2016, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, an international advisory commission headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was created to overcome strife within the state. The final report addresses in depth a broad range of structural issues that are impediments to the peace and prosperity of Rakhine State. Several recommendations focus specifically on citizenship verification, rights and equality before the law, documentation, the situation of the internally displaced and freedom of movement, which affect the Muslim population disproportionally. However, the Myanmar government has remained adamant about altering the citizenship law.
Myanmar’s National Security Adviser Thaung Tun, on the other hand, told Reuters authorities were implementing the Annan commission’s recommendations “to the fullest extent possible and as expeditiously as we can”.
In the wake of the crisis last year, militaries all over the world, including those of the European Union, Britain, the United States, France and Canada, cut ties with the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, over its “disproportionate use of force” which “strongly indicates a deliberate action to expel a minority”. However, as Australia’s military remains in cooperation with Tatmadaw, Amnesty International has demanded they suspend assistance immediately. Amnesty has also called for accountability, including a UN Security Council referral to the ICC.
The Myanmar apartheid will worsen if serious measures are not undertaken to repatriate the Rohingyas. These measures must include citizenship so as to prevent future troubles regarding property and other assets. Moreover, from a humanitarian perspective, it is imperative that Rohingyas are not ostracised from a state with which they have historical ties.
A December 2016 report by the International Crisis Group said Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ASRA) is led by a "committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics. Myanmar officials believe that ASRA is fringe group which is threatening the political fabric of the country.
Our assessment is that as stated previously most Rohingyas would go back only if they are given Myanmar citizenship, as well as the freedom of movement and religion. This is going to be the challenge as Myanmar’s government has not given any indication that they are willing to accept these demands. We feel that international pressure and action may accelerate negotiations in favour of the displaced Rohingyas, however, the nature and scale of such action should be considerate of both parties so as to not alienate either from comprehensive talks.