RANGOON — Former UN general secretary and chair of the Arakan State Advisory Commission Kofi Annan conducted a closed-door meeting in Rangoon earlier this month with members of the Arakanese Buddhist and Muslim communities, The Irrawaddy has learned.
Commission member Al-Haj U Aye Lwin confirmed that the one-hour meeting took place on September 8 at the Sule Shangri-La Hotel, and was attended by lawyers, civil society representatives, political party leaders, and the Rangoon chapter of the Rakhine (Arakanese) Thahaya Association.
U Aye Lwin said that representatives from both sides appeared open-minded, and presented findings to contribute to the advisory commission’s “impartial report,” which will be submitted to the State Counselor’s Office upon completion. Mr. Annan re-stated to the meeting attendees the objective of the commission: to pursue conflict resolution, humanitarian assistance, reconciliation and development in Arakan State.
Hla Maung Thein, chair of Rakhine Thahaya Association, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that he had attended the meeting and talked with Mr. Annan, cautioning him against coming to what could be perceived as a “one-sided conclusion” and encouraging investigation of “the root causes” of ethno-religious violence in Arakan State.
Some of the meeting’s Buddhist Arakanese attendees reportedly said that they “welcome the commission” and demanded naturalized citizenship be provided to stateless self-identifying Muslim Rohingya in line with existing laws, which could require them to first identify as “Bengali” migrants of Bangladesh. This, meeting attendees said, could avoid dissatisfaction from Arakanese nationalists, many of whom do not want those who identify as Rohingya to have citizenship at all. The Rohingya maintain that they are not Bengali migrants, and that they have roots in Arakan State.
The Muslim delegation to the meeting included lawyers U Chit Lwin and U Kyaw Hla Aung, and U Kyaw Min from the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), which represents Rangoon-based Muslims but did not win any seats in the 2015 general election.
U Aye Lwin said that some of the more flexible Buddhist Arakanese had recognized that the affairs of Arakan State had long been featured on the international stage, despite recent Arakanese protests against Kofi Annan, calling his and other international actors’ involvement in the commission a threat to national sovereignty.
Arakanese delegates at the meeting reportedly emphasized that the issuing of citizenship cards in line with Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law—which defines citizenship along ethnic lines—would be the best option for stateless Muslims in the region. U Aye Lwin recalled that Muslim delegates agreed that citizenship scrutiny could be performed alongside existing laws, but expressed concern that the government implementation of the law and the letter of it were not in agreement.
U Aye Lwin said that even he was “surprised” when Muslims at the meeting accepted a verification process in line with the controversial law, adding that those within some displacement camps in Sittwe—the Arakan State capital—had also agreed to the suggestion.
However, U Aye Lwin told The Irrawaddy that he hopes the Burmese government can be encouraged to amend the existing citizenship law.
“What we suggest is to analyze and review the 1982 law with the support of legal experts, with the aim of recommending amendments which will easy for everyone to understand, concerning application and interpretation,” said U Aye Lwin.
Any attempt to amend the 1982 Citizenship Law in the Union Parliament could be faced with the objections of the military appointees and the ethnic bloc, especially the nationalist Arakan National Party (ANP) who have consistently stood against changing it.
According to U Aye Lwin, Muslim community leaders from Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships in Arakan State are on board with efforts to explore and tackle concerns relating to what is perceived as an insecure border with neighboring Bangladesh.
The advisory commission also asked the Muslim leaders to perform a headcount of the population in villages and quarters home to the minority group. In May, an unsubstantiated rumor spread throughout Buddhist communities in Sittwe that Aung Mingalar—the Arakan State capital’s Muslim quarter—was housing a growing number of undocumented migrants. Buddhist nationalists demanded the government inspect the entire quarter; officials found no evidence to back the allegation.
Recently, some villages in northern Arakan State refused to collaborate with a headcount, which they say was a continuation of the policies of Burma’s previous, military-backed government and would not provide benefit to the Muslim community; an estimated 1.3 million self-identifying Rohingya Muslims were not enumerated in Burma’s 2014 census, carried out under the former government administration.
“To diminish distrust between the two communities, a headcount process is crucial,” said U Aye Lwin.
In the past, Muslims from Arakan State held identification documents known as “tri-fold cards.” These documents were issued starting in 1958 and originally entitled holders to equal rights as other Burmese citizens, until the 1982 Citizenship Law re-defined citizenship eligibility.
A citizenship verification drive initiated under the former Thein Sein government and continued under the current National League for Democracy-led government led to the registration with national verification certificates (NVCs) as a precursor to citizenship scrutiny. While many registered in the scheme, the NVCs were also rejected by some Rohingya Muslims who questioned why their ethnicity and religion were omitted from the documents.
U Kyaw Min, from the DHRP, told The Irrawaddy that if the government could resolve citizenship within a legal framework it would also simultaneously resolve any perceived issues surrounding migration.
“Declining [citizenship for] the Rohingya is not going to solve the problem. The real problem in Arakan State is equal rights, not [the presence of] the Rohingya,” said U Kyaw Min.
U Zaw Zaw, a resident of Sittwe’s Aung Mingalar quarter who self-identifies as Rohingya, told The Irrawaddy that the problem in Arakan State is a lack of equality; the riots and violence which swept the region in 2012 were derived from oppression, he said.
“We want citizenship which is granted by the law and the protection of the government,” he added, yet U Zaw Zaw worries that if his community is granted citizenship, the surrounding Arakanese society will strongly object to the action.
Both U Kyaw Min and U Zaw Zaw said that they have more faith in the advisory commission than in the government; while the commission will make recommendations, it will be up to the country’s leadership to practically implement any solutions laid out by the commission.
“The government needs to amend the law. But I don’t hold much hope,” said U Kyaw Min, pointing out that many of the State Counselor’s closest aides and advisors also had ties to the previous Thein Sein-led administration.
The advisory commission members, including chairman Kofi Annan, will begin their second trip to Arakan State at the end of October, and are scheduled to visit Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships.