RANGOON — Burma’s government has rejected calls by the United Nations General Assembly’s human rights committee to grant the stateless Rohingyas citizenship rights, with government officials saying the country does not recognize the existence of “a Rohingya minority.”
Officials said the government would consider granting Burmese citizenship to “Bengalis” who are eligible under the 1982 Citizenship Law—a piece of legislation that has been condemned by international human rights groups as discriminatory towards the Muslim group.
The UN General Assembly’s human rights committee on Tuesday adopted a resolution welcoming the progress that was made in the field of human rights under President Thein Sein’s reformist government.
The resolution, however, expressed “serious concern” about the treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Arakan State and Muslims elsewhere in the country. The government, it said, “should grant equal access to full citizenship for the Rohingya minority and… to undertake full, transparent and independent investigations into all reports of human rights violations.”
The resolution also “expresses concern at continued delays” by the Burma government in establishing a High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) office, which allow the UN to independently monitor the human rights situation on the ground.
The UN appeals were rejected by Burma’s Permanent Representative at the UN Kyaw Tin. The President Thein Sein’s spokesman Ye Htut also quickly dismissed the appeals in a statement on his Facebook page on Thursday.
“The Myanmar government’s policy does not recognize the term ‘Rohingya’, but Bengalis who live in [Arakan] State, if they are eligible under the 1982 Citizen Law, can be allowed to become citizen.”
“Any person ineligible under the law can’t be citizen, no matter who is pressuring” the Burma government, he wrote. “This is our sovereign right.”
Kyaw Tin told the UN assembly that Burma has a “long standing position against the use of the word ‘Rohingya minority’.” He also rejected UN calls to speed up the opening of UN OHCHR office, saying Burma “reserves the right to choose the mandate of the office.”
Thein Sein reportedly promised US President Obama during his visit to in November 2012 that the UN rights office would soon be allowed to open.
International human rights groups have repeatedly condemned Burma’s Citizenship Law 1982 as discriminating against the Rohingya Muslim minority, as the law omits the group from the recognized list of 130 minorities.
The international community has called for the law to be amended or overhauled in order to address the issue of Rohingya citizenship.
An estimated 800,000 stateless Rohingyas live in northern Arakan State, where they suffer numerous rights abuses at the hands of local authorities, which have restricted the group’s freedom of movement and limited their access to basic government services such as health care and education.
The government does not recognize the group as citizens and refers them as “Bengalis” to suggest they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
There is a long history of inter-communal violence between Rohingyas and Arakan State’s Buddhist majority. Last year, bloody outbreaks of violence left 192 people dead and displaced 142,000 people, most of them Muslims. Rights groups have claimed that Arakan nationalists have been committing acts of ethnic cleansing, with tacit government support.
Aye Maung, chairman of Rakhine National Development Party (RNDP), which represents the state’s Buddhist majority, said he totally rejected the UN’s call for Rohingya citizenship.
“I feel that the world’s powerful countries are trying to pressure us through the UN,” he said. “We won’t give them [the Rohingyas] our land, not even one inch. We will protect our land by giving our lives.”
Thar Aye, a Rangoon-based Rohingya leader and general secretary of Union National Development Party, said the Rohingyas had been a recognized minority in Burma for decades until previous military government decided to rescind its formal recognition of the group.
“My parents were recognized as Rohingya on their National Registration Card in 1954, but later governments changed it to ‘Bengali,’” he said.
“I think we [Rohingyas] should gain citizenship under the article 6 of the  Citizenship Law,” Thar Aye said, referring to a provision in the law that states that “A person who is already a citizen on the date this Law comes into force is a citizen.”