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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Citizenship of the Rohingya in Myanmar: A historical account

The Daily Star
Md Khalid Rahman
Tue Aug 24, 2021

While the international stakeholders and the Government of Bangladesh have tried for their safe and dignified voluntary return of the Rohingya refugees as per the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar, the citizenship issue became one of the crucial contesting conditions. Unfortunately, no government of Myanmar, after the mischievous power-grabbing of the then Burma by the military government led by General Ne Win has responded positively to the citizenship issue of the Rohingya. The present article argues that the citizenship crisis is rooted in the British colonial era that consequently gained momentum through the political demarcation and marginalisation of different ethnicity including Rohingya.

It is believed that, during post-colonial periods, the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine/Arakan Buddhists lived harmoniously. After the colonisation by the British and the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1825, there was a paradigm shift in the politics and thus change the notion of the people of these two groups which silently created division and distance. This situation further extended during the Second World War, when the Rohingya declared their loyalty to the British while the Arakanese/ Rakhine sided with the Japanese. In response, the Rohingya population was targeted jointly by both the Rakhine Buddhists and the Burma Independence Army, killing 100,000 Rohingya and exiling a further 50,000 towards the border to the then East Bengal. The situation worsened in 1947 when some Rohingya had been negotiating with West Pakistan about incorporating Maungdaw and Buthidaung of the northern Arakan region into East Pakistan which subsequently failed due to strong objections from Aung San and Nehru.


The structure of the 1948 Burmese Constitution stands on the foundation of federal polity based on the Panglong Agreement signed by General Aung San, the chief architect of Burma's independence, on behalf of the majority Burmans with Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic nationalities who considered Burma as their home. However, the unfortunate assassination of Aung San settled the Burmese Constitution in favor of the Buddhist beliefs repudiating the tolerant integration of different ethnicity including Rohingya Muslims as it became deeply associated with "Burmeseness".

After the independence of Burma from the British in 1948, the 'Constitution of the Union of Burma and the Union Citizenship Act' together deemed as legal document encompasses guidelines for Rohingya towards Burmese citizenship. Harmonious reading of these two documents contended the constitution's intention of making citizenship inclusive rather than limiting access to citizenship rights for both Buddhists and Muslims. U Nu, the longest-serving civilian Prime minister of Burma, declared Rohingya as one of the ethnic races and acknowledged nationality of Rohingya with Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. Burma's first president, Sao Shwe Thaike, and independent Burma's second prime minister, U Ba Swe, reiterated similar attitudes about the Rohingya's equal status of nationality.

Unfortunately, after the coup d'état in 1962, all the process of implementing citizenship rights of Rohingya have been deferred, even the government rejected official documents that had recognised Rohingya citizenship – effectively making them stateless. The five decades that followed saw the military in continual conflict with the country's ethnic minorities and these ongoing domestic conflicts have been labeled the world's longest-running civil war. In Ne Win's regime, the citizenship standing of the military government was practiced differently, especially by denying citizenship rights, forced official exercise, and silent changes in the contemporary domestic understandings about Taingyintha or "sons of the soil" ideology of ethnicity.

In the 1974 Burmese Constitution, which has been adopted based on a socialist manifesto by the military-led government, the ethnic groups had lost their special recognition. In 1978 the first military campaign, codenamed "Dragon King", was carried out forcing about 200,000 Rohingya to cross the border into Bangladesh refuting Rohingya as a citizen of Burma. However, the government of Myanmar took back the Rohingya under pressure from UNHCR and Muslim countries in 1979.


With the enactment of the Citizenship Law in 1982, the Rohingya were denied all forms of citizenship i.e., full, associate, and naturalised though they had strong proof of their existence in Burma before 1823.

From 1978 to 2017, there were several expulsions of Rohingya in different consecutive years. There was a nationwide campaign in April 2013 carried out by Buddhist monks that demanded anti-Muslim legislation. However, the 2008 constitution was very delicate in denying the Rohingya citizenship by drastically narrowing down the grounds of acquiring citizenship by the Rohingya. Moreover, the Thein Sein government repetitively address Rohingya as "illegal migrants of Bangladesh" and Suu Kyi-led government stands on the same footing make the situation worse. Therefore, all these systematic incidents in these years could be narrowed down to one arguable conclusion - structuring the denial mechanism of Rohingya citizenship by making the Rohingya stateless in their own country.

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