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The key issue for us is citizenship, says UN deputy chief

By Alex Bookbinder
September 14, 2014

Restoring citizenship rights for more than 800,000 stateless people in Arakan State is the “key issue” the United Nations wants resolved, the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General Haoliang Xu told DVB in an interview on Friday.

“In my view, the question is, what’s the best way to ensure that people in IDP camps – and [the] majority of the Muslim population outside the camps – have secure citizenship?” Xu said. “At the end of the day, this is what will move the situation forward, and everybody can focus on development. Developing a better life, developing a better country. This, to us, is key.”

Most Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship under Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, despite the fact that many claim roots in Burma that date back generations. Roughly 140,000 live in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the state, and most – both inside and outside the camps – are subject to significant restrictions on their freedom of movement.

Xu, who is also the assistant administrator for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and its director for the Asia-Pacific region, concluded a week-long visit to Burma on Friday. Along with John Ging, the director of the Coordination and Response Division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Xu met with senior officials in Naypyidaw and spent two days in Arakan, where the pair met with state government officials and local leaders.

In late June, the government launched a pilot “citizenship verification” project in Myebon Township, part of its “Rakhine [Arakan] Action Plan” – currently a work in progress – which is intended to address issues surrounding refugee resettlement, development and humanitarian assistance.

But those seeking citizenship have been told that they must declare themselves “Bengalis” in lieu of “Rohingya”, denying them the right to self-identification. In a July speech, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, deemed this to be a violation of international human rights law and “not in line with international standards”.

But Xu cautioned against focusing on terminology while the pressing issues of statelessness, humanitarian access and development go unaddressed. He claimed that doing so runs the risk of fuelling tensions. “The [term] ‘Rohingya’ has been used in UN documents … there is even a UN General Assembly resolution that uses this terminology,” Xu said. “But we have to recognise the impact the terminology can have, and not necessarily as a facilitator, but as probably an impediment to focus on the real issue that is citizenship.

“We want to focus on the issue of … a solution. How can people get the rights [they] need. That’s really our focus.”

Arakan is the second-poorest state in Burma, and the development needs of both Buddhist and Muslim communities are profound. In recent years, UN agencies and international NGOs have come under intense criticism for a perceived bias towards Muslim communities in the state. In late February, relief agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was forced to suspend its operations, which provided life-saving front-line care to hundreds of thousands. This week, MSF signed a new memorandum of understanding with the government, but has not as yet resumed normal operations.

“The … international community has been geared towards supporting the Muslim groups, and I think that, over the last 20 years, the majority of support has been geared towards [providing for] their basic needs,” Xu said. “That helps to create emotions among the Rakhine community that the international community is biased. This is one issue that needs to be addressed; you need to address the emotions when you try to address such a difficult humanitarian situation.”

Xu believes that development plays a crucial role in bridging the divide between the two sides, and that many of their grievances are the same.

“This point came out very loud and clear in discussions throughout our trip. [Both sides] know that humanitarian action is not a long-term solution … to reduce the perceived inequality between the two communities,” Xu said. “The state government supports this view: they would like us to work on humanitarian issues, but also really scale up our development efforts.”

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