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Citizenship for a few, rights for none: the Rohingya in Myanmar

Daw Gulban, a 53 year-old Rohingya woman who was granted citizenship in 2014, shows her ‘pink card’ at her house in Taung Paw Camp in Myebon. 13 March 2017. (Antolín Avezuela Aristu)

By Anton Avezuela & Carlos Sardina Galache
July 24, 2017

“Nothing has changed for me since I got citizenship,” says Daw Gulban, a 53 year-old Rohingya woman living in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myebon Town, Rakhine State, Myanmar. Daw Gulban has been confined to the camp since a wave of sectarian violence began in 2012. Like the overwhelming majority of Rohingya, Daw Gulban was stateless for decades, but unlike most of them, she gained her citizenship three years ago as part of a pilot program in her township.

To qualify for citizenship, Rohingya applicants had to renounce their identity and accept being labelled as ‘Bengalis’ on all official documents. They also had to prove that they could trace the presence of their family in Rakhine back three generations, something which is extremely difficult as many Rohingya lack documents or had lost them in 2012.

Daw Gulban was one of the lucky ones: she could produce the necessary papers. “I heard the word ‘Rohingya’ from my parents when I was a child, but it’s not accepted by the immigration department. They laughed at me and told me to go when I said it once in their office. Bengali means we are from Bangladesh. I am from Burma, but I’m willing to accept [this term] if I can get citizenship and rights,” she explains.

Rohingya Muslims comprise one million out of the 53 million people that live in Myanmar, forming the world’s largest stateless population in a single country. Almost universally reviled by the country’s Buddhist majority, they have been oppressed by the government since the late 1970s when the government launched a campaign to identify ‘illegal immigrants’. Serious abuses were committed, forcing as many as 250,000 Rohingya refugees to flee to Bangladesh.

The Rohingya ethnicity is not included in the list of 135 officially recognised ‘national races’ adopted in the late 1980s by the government. Rohingyas are labelled ‘Bengalis’ instead, implying that they are interlopers from Bangladesh despite their deep roots in Rakhine State, where most of the community lives.

The Myebon River in Myanmar, on the shores of which the town of Myebon lies. 12 March 2017.
Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

In 2012, a year after the government launched a process of democratic transition from five decades of military dictatorship, successive waves of sectarian violence between the Buddhist Rakhine majority and Muslim Rohingya engulfed Rakhine State. Rohingya bore the brunt of the violence and, since then, 140,000 people have been forced to live in squalid camps, many along the Myebon River.

Bananda Phyabawga, abbot of the Pyanabakeman Buddhist Monastery, in Myebon, poses while surrounded by a group of local monks. Myebon, Myanmar, 12 March 2017. Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

Some local Rakhine and national politicians, influential Buddhist monks, civil society leaders and the government itself have all been stoking fears about a Muslim invasion of this deeply religious Buddhist-majority country for decades, resulting in sporadic bouts of sectarian violence and the progressive disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and other Muslim populations in the country. The violence in 2012 was the worst in years and the situation of the Rohingya has worsened markedly ever since.

“Muslims try to impose their religion on others, so we need to handle this threat,” says Bananda Phyabawga, the abbot of a local monastery.

Maung Zaw shows the ‘pink card’ he received in 2014 in Taung Paw Camp, Myebon. 13 March 2017.
Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

In 2014, the government launched a pilot program to verify the citizenship of the Rohingya. The verification process was mostly carried out in the township of Myebon, where almost 3,000 Muslims had been confined in a camp since October 2012.

The program was carried out by application of the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law, which establishes three layers of citizenship and makes belonging to one of Myanmar’s ‘national races’ the primary (although not the sole) criterion of full citizenship.

The way ethnic labels are applied may sometimes be arbitrary. Maung Zaw, a 45 year-old intern at the camp was branded ‘Bengali’ on the pink citizenship card he attained in 2014 but his family documents show that he belongs to the Kaman minority, a Muslim ethnic group officially recognised as one of the 135 so-called ‘national races’ in the country.

Daw Khin Thein, chair of the local chapter of the Rakhine Women’s Network, in her gold shop in Myebon. 12 March 2017. Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

The citizenship verification process was met with strong resistance from the local Rakhine population. Organisations such as the Rakhine Women’s Network staged demonstrations in the town against the move and have mobilised to prevent the provision of services to the Rohingya living in the camp.

The local leader of the Rakhine Women’s Network, Daw Khin Thein, has led these demonstrations. “This conflict is not about citizenship, but about the Muslims trying to invade our land. That’s the real problem,” she says.

Taung Paw Camp, in the outskirts of Myebon Town. 13 March 2017. Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

U Tin Shwe, the general administrator of Myebon Township, was in charge of the local pilot program in 2014, which lasted for a few months. “Virtually all Muslims applied for citizenship, and none of them used the word ‘Rohingya’. They don’t use that word here. We eventually gave full citizenship to 97 people, and naturalised citizenship to 969 of them,” he explains to Equal Times in his office.

Several Muslim citizens interviewed by Equal Times asserted that permits are extremely difficult to get and they have to pay exorbitant bribes to the police to attain them. They also claim that their lives have changed very little since they were recognised as citizens. Those still confined in IDP camps have little access to education or healthcare. The local population refuses to allow them access to such services and the authorities do little to protect them. To move outside the camp, they need special permits and protection from the security forces, which comes at a price that few can afford.

“The 1982 Citizenship Law recognised as citizens those who were already recorded as such, regardless of how they were identified racially or religiously. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the government launched a process of re-registration, taking old ID cards to re-issue new ones, Muslims in Rakhine State were not issued with new cards even when they were legally entitled to them,” explains Nick Cheesman, a Myanmar legal expert at the Australian National University.

A group of Muslim women carry water at Taung Paw Camp in Myebon. 13 March 2017. Photo: Antolín Avezuela Aristu

“The problem in contemporary Burma is that the notion of national races surpasses that of citizenship, both legally and ideologically. The 1982 Citizenship Law may recognise that members of non-national races who held citizenship previously would keep it, but it set as the gold standard for citizenship to be a member of one of the national races,” Cheesman adds.

An ethnic Bamar from central Myanmar, Tin Shwe blamed the local Rakhine population for the restrictions of movement imposed on Muslims. “When the program was implemented, it met with strong protests from the indigenous community. I tried to explain the law to them, but it’s difficult for the government, because we found ourselves between both communities,” he explains. Beyond the apparent divergences between Rakhine nationalists and government officials like Tin Shwe, all of them seem to agree on the idea that the Rohingya are not “natural citizens” of Myanmar. Citizens or not, the Rohingya are still seen as foreigners in the only land they have ever known.

“Nothing has changed for me since I got citizenship,” she says. “I don’t know what human rights are. I just know I would like to have food at my table, freedom of movement, education for my children, access to healthcare and for my family to live without fear,” she adds.

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