88 Generation Leaders Speak Out on Rohingya Issue

By Saw Yan Naing 7 August 2012

Leading members of the 88 Generation students group held a press conference in Rangoon on Sunday to report on their findings from a recent trip to Arakan State, where communal clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have attracted worldwide attention.

Urging a more complete view of the situation in the troubled state, the former student activists said that  the international community should not focus only on the humanitarian dimension, but also on historical and security issues related to the conflict.

The group, which is widely regarded as one of Burma’s most prominent pro-democracy organizations, made the remarks following a visit to the state last week by UN rights envoy for Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana, who said it was a “matter of urgency” to set up an independent and credible investigation into the allegations of rights abuses.

Violence between Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists erupted in early June, leaving dozens dead and displacing more than 91,000. There have been widespread allegations that security forces were complicit in violence targeting Rohingyas.

Min Ko Naing, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students group, told The Irrawaddy that both communities will continue to suffer unless the history of the region and security concerns are taken into consideration.

At the press conference, he also said that his group doesn’t reject Quintana’s calls for “an urgent independent investigation” into the violence. However, Ko Ko Gyi, another prominent member of the group, said the investigation body must be “truly independent” and conduct its works fairly if it is formed.

Following his visit, Quintana said he was “extremely concerned about the deep-seated animosity and distrust which exists between the communities in [Arakan] State. The situation will only further deteriorate unless brave steps are taken by the government.”

He also raised concerns about discrimination against the Rohingya, including the denial of citizenship and restrictions on their their freedom of movement and right to marry.

“I hope that steps will be taken to address these issues, including a review of the 1982 Citizenship Act to ensure that it is in line with international human rights standards,” said Quintana.

According to the 1982 Citizenship Law enacted by former dictator Gen Ne Win, Burma recognizes three categories of citizens—full citizen, associate citizen and naturalized citizen.

Full citizens are descendants of residents who lived in Burma prior to 1823 or were born to parents who were citizens at the time of birth. Associate citizens are those who acquired citizenship through the 1948 Union Citizenship Law. Naturalized citizens refers to persons who lived in Burma before Jan 4 1948 and applied for citizenship after 1982.

The Rohingya are not recognized as belonging to any of these categories.

Critics say the 1982 citizenship law violates several fundamental principles of international customary law standards, offends the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and leaves the Rohingya people exposed without any legal protection of their rights.

According to Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to a nationality” and “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

The critics say that the 1982 Citizenship Law has perpetuated the Rohingya citizenship crisis, making them objects of persecution and discrimination.

However, Ba Shein, a Lower House MP for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, told The Irrawaddy that the 1982 Citizenship Act was enacted with the aim of protect national security as the country is situated next to the world’s most populous countries.

The problem, he said, is that the law hasn’t be properly enforced because of corrupt immigration officials who issued national ID cards to foreigners, including Bengali migrants who entered Burma illegally from Bangladesh a long time ago. The Burmese government has simply ignored the problem  and allowed it to get worse, he said.

Ba Shein said that some Muslim leaders and foreign activists have pushed for recognition of the Rohingya as one of the country’s “national races” because they believe that will give them the right to remain in Burma as citizens.

“The international community is telling us to do this and do that about our internal affairs, but what can the world do for us to protect our national security?” he asked.

Ko Ko Gyi said Quintana only focused on the human rights dimension of the Rohingya issue because he is a UN human rights envoy. But the root of the problem is based on ethnic conflict, he said.

“While ethnic Arakanese are afraid to live in their villages, the international community is only saying that the government oppresses Muslim people,” he added.