INGOs Call for Repeal of Burma's Citizenship Law

By The Irrawaddy 9 July 2012

A coalition of 31 international NGOs, including many top Burma lobbyists and funders, issued a statement on Monday calling for the repeal of the country’s Citizenship Law.

The INGOs said the 1982 law, which was issued during the reign of former dictator Gen. Ne Win, is “not compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or with Burma’s legal obligations under international treaties.” In addition, the group said, “it arbitrarily stripped many people in Burma of the right to citizenship.”

Though not mentioning the Rohingya community by name, the statement is clearly intended to voice support for the Rohingyas’ call to be granted status in Burma, and an end to discriminatory social and legal practices against the ethnic group, which many Burmese view as illegal Bengali immigrants.

Under Burma’s current law, 135 ethnic groups are identified as eligible for citizenship, including the main nationalities—Burman, Rakhine, Chin, Shan, Karen, Mon and Karenni. Chapter II, article 3, of the Citizenship Law states that only these groups and others that settled in Burma before 1823 are entitled to Burmese citizenship.

1823 marks the year when the First Anglo-Burmese War broke out, a conflict that the British won and thereafter assumed control of the country. The British colonialists brought with them soldiers and staff from India, including members of the Muslim Bengali community who mostly settled in Arakan State.

A new citizenship law was introduced in 1948 at the time Burma won independence. Under Article 4 (II), “Any person descended from ancestors who for two generations at least have all made any of the territories included within the Union their permanent home and whose parents and himself were born in any of such territories shall be deemed to be a citizen of the Union.”

Though no specific mention is made of the Bengalis, or “Rohingyas” as the community grew to call themselves, the 1948 law would appear to have granted early Bengali settlers the right to citizenship, though this was firmly overturned by the military-drafted 1982 law.

Denied legal status in Burma, and burdened with draconian restrictions on travel, marriage and even reproduction, many Rohingyas have attempted to return to what is now Bangladesh only to be rejected by that country too. In effect, the 2 million or so Rohingya are “stateless,” though most live in Arakan State, Bangladesh or India, and are regarded by the UN as one of the most maltreated peoples on the planet.

Monday’s statement said the current citizenship law “should be repealed, and replaced with a new law founded on basic principles of human rights.”

The 31 INGOs said that any new law “should honour equality and non-discrimination, and help create an inclusive and tolerant Burma.” It called on Naypyidaw to comply with its obligations under the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Signatories to the statement included Burma Campaign UK, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, US Campaign for Burma, Chin Human Rights Organization, Norwegian Burma Committee, Altsean-Burma, Forum for Democracy in Burma, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

But not all Burma campaign groups agreed with the statement. Canadian Friends of Burma (CFOB) executive director Tin Maung Htoo accused the coalition of “acting like an international arm for Rohingya propaganda manufacturing machine” and stated that CFOB would not be associated with the campaign.