NAYPYIDAW—Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said that Burma “must decide for itself” whether or not to grant citizenship to the Muslim minority Rohingya, but she added that the government “should listen” to foreign experts and uphold international standards in its citizenship laws.
Suu Kyi was responding to criticism by Jose Ramos-Horta, the former president of Timor Leste, and Muhammad Yunus, founder of microfinance institution Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, who wrote in The Huffington Post on Feb. 20 that Burma should amend its laws and grant the Rohingya “full citizenship.”
The two Nobel Peace Prize laureates said Burma was failing to address the ongoing “ethnic cleansing” of the group in Arakan State, western Burma. Other international rights workers have previously also called on Burma to accept Rohingya citizenship.
A 1982 Citizenship Law, introduced by Burma’s military regime, excluded the Rohingya from the recognized 135 minorities in the country, rendering them effectively stateless.
When asked about the criticism in Naypyidaw on Friday, Suu Kyi said, “A country must decide its citizenship for itself, but in doing so it should meet international standards.”
“We should listen to and learn from what foreign scholars say,” she said of her fellow Nobel laureates. “And, finally, we have to make a decision by ourselves if what they say is appropriate in our country’s situation,” Suu Kyi told The Irrawaddy.
The government of President Thein Sein has given conflicting signals on how it seeks to resolve the issue of Rohingya citizenship. Most recently, on Feb. 20, Deputy Minister of Immigration and Population Kyaw Kyaw Win told Parliament that Burma knows “no Rohingya” ethnic group.
Since mid-2012 ethnic violence has plagued Arakan State. Scores of people, including women and children, have been killed and about 110,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, were displaced after inter-communal violence broke out between Arakanese Buddhist and Muslim Rohingya communities, according to UN estimates.
Local Arakanese authorities have been accused of being complicit in the violence against the Rohingya, who are referred to locally as “Bengali’s” from neighboring Bangladesh. Thousands of Rohingya have fled Arakan State in small boats since violence flared.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres has repeatedly expressed deep concern over the plight of those who flee on boats into the Bay of Bengal. The UN said about 13,000 Rohingya fled western Burma and Bangladesh in 2012, and an estimated 500 refugees died at sea.
In recent weeks there have been almost daily reports of Rohingya’s being picked up on boats in the open ocean.
On Tuesday, Guterres again called for governments in the Asia Pacific region to work together to end the humanitarian tragedy taking place in the Bay of Bengal.
“This is an alarmingly high number of lives lost, and begs a far more concerted effort by countries of the region both with regard to addressing the causes and to preventing lives being lost,” he said.
“Push-backs, denial of disembarkation, and boats adrift for weeks will not solve a regional problem that clearly needs better, more joined-up, and more compassionate approaches by everyone,” Guterres said
The commissioner referred to some of the approaches taken by regional governments such as Thailand, which, on occasion, has pushed back boats of Rohingya into the open ocean.
The UNHCR said it plans to facilitate a regional government meeting in mid-March in Indonesia on irregular movements by sea in the Asia-Pacific, in order to address the Rohingya refugee crisis.
Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze.