Push for Citizenship Verification Brings Contentious Law Into Focus

By Su Myat Mon 12 May 2016

RANGOON — A proposal submitted to the Lower House of Burma’s Parliament late last week by a lawmaker of the Arakan National Party (ANP) urged the government to “resolve citizenship issues” in Burma in accordance with the 1982 Citizenship Law. The proposal suggested that a nationwide citizenship verification drive be undertaken—although it remained vague on the focus and scope of the proposed exercise.

The contentious 1982 legislation defines eligibility in racial terms and renders stateless most Rohingya, a Muslim minority residing in western Arakan State.

The ANP lawmaker Khin Saw Wai stated that “illegal migration from another country” and an influx of “Bengalis” had led to violence and instability in Burma.

“Bengali” is the term used by the Burmese government and much of the general population of Burma for the Rohingya, implying they are interlopers from Bangladesh—the country alluded to by Khin Saw Wai.

“Illegal immigration has affected rule of law and the security and sovereignty of Burma,” Khin Saw Wai of the ANP went on. Resolving citizenship problems is a national concern, and the lack of action taken to address this fragile situation is “sad,” she told the Lower House of Parliament.

Khin Saw Wai cited the long borders Burma shares with China, India and Bangladesh, and the communities dispersed on either side of these fluid boundaries, as a source of vulnerability for Burma. She blamed “misconduct, abuse of power and corruption” from government agencies for the alleged numbers of “illegal migrants” holding citizenship.

Khin Saw Wai cited former holders of “white cards,” which bestowed “temporary” citizenship—estimated at 700,00 by the United Nations, the overwhelming majority being Rohingya in Arakan State—as being in need of proper “verification” by the government, as well as the large numbers across Burma without any documentation, many of which “could be illegal,” she said.

“The 1982 Citizenship Law is a strong law,” Khin Saw Wai said, which lays out clear rules for gaining citizenship. She cited the chapter which states that “naturalized” citizenship, a subordinate category to “full citizens” with fewer rights, can be obtained by members of “non-recognized ethnic groups” if they have lived in Burma prior to 1948 or one of their parents holds a category of citizenship.

Another ANP lawmaker, Aung Thaung Shwe, supported the proposal for the government to systematically “examine” the citizenship status of residents across Burma, to strengthen “sovereignty, security and the rule of law.” He said that the problem of “illegal migration” started during the British occupation of Burma: “The British allowed foreigners to enter freely into Burma.”

The British annexed the Arakan coast, along with the southeastern coastal strip of Tenasserim, after the first Anglo-Burmese War concluded in 1826, making it one of the first British-ruled territories in Burma. Under British rule, a growing economy and demand for labor brought substantial immigration, particularly from India—of which Burma was designated an administrative province up until 1937. Bangladesh later gained independence from Pakistan, also part of the British Raj, in 1971.

“The 1982 Citizenship Law suffers from weak enforcement, due to a general absence of the rule of law,” said Aung Thaung Shwe of the ANP. “That is why illegal migration takes place, especially in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, which border Bangladesh. These now suffer from overpopulation,” Aung Thaung Shwe said.

Members of the Lower House voted to discuss the ANP proposal, potentially as soon as this week. Those wishing to discuss the matter were to register for a speaking slot by Wednesday of this week.

These comments in Parliament come against the backdrop of an existing, but stalled, citizenship verification program aimed at the displaced Muslim population in Arakan State. The program remains a pillar of the Rakhine State Action Plan, first unveiled by the Burmese government in 2014 in response to the sectarian violence of 2012. The scheme would allow Rohingya individuals to apply for citizenship—under the 1982 law—on the condition that they self-identify as “Bengali.”

A pilot citizenship verification program was then carried out in IDP camps in Myebon Township. Out of the 1,094 Muslims applicants, 209 were declared eligible for citizenship in September 2014—although most were reportedly Kaman, a recognized Muslim minority group, and 169 qualified only for naturalized citizenship.

After an outcry from Arakanese Buddhist residents in Myebon and the state capital Sittwe, the program was swiftly suspended. It remains stalled, and a reluctance of many Rohingya to identify as “Bengali,” which they consider undermines their claim to belonging in Burma, has contributed to the stalemate.

The magazine Frontier Myanmar on Wednesday reported that the verification program had resumed on May 1, citing the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population. Contacted by The Irrawaddy, however, Sittwe-based Rohingya rights activist Aung Win said he had heard no word of a resumption.

Under previous laws, such as the 1948 Union Citizenship Act and the 1949 Residents of Myanmar Registration Act, most Rohingya enjoyed de facto citizenship rights by virtue of being born within Burma, and from 1958 held what were known as National Registration (or “tri-fold”) Cards that entitled them to equal rights with other Burmese citizens, including running for elected office. Many still posses them.

The 1982 Citizenship Law, enacted under the military-socialist regime of Ne Win, narrowed eligibility for full citizenship along racial lines. Those not included within 135 recognized ethnic groups must demonstrate that all four grandparents made Burma their home, and that both themselves and their parents were born in Burma. However, since the vast majority of people in Burma went without documents prior to rules requiring registration introduced in 1951, this is very difficult for most to prove.

Second- and third-class categories of “naturalized” and “associate” citizenship were established by the 1982 law, with diminishing rights, including ineligibility for political office or enrollment in medical and engineering colleges. Many of Indian and Chinese descent were placed into these categories.

The law rendered the majority of the Rohingya in Arakan State stateless, since they are conspicuously absent from the 135 listed ethnic groups and found it difficult to prove residency over multiple generations. For tens of thousands displaced be the 2012 violence, the problem is compounded by the fact that they fled their homes, many of which were burned to the ground, leaving documents attesting to family histories behind.

In a nationwide citizenship verification process begun in 1989 and extending into the 1990s, many Rohingya received Temporary Registration Certificates (popularly known as “white cards”), designating them as “temporary citizens.” This secured their residency but denied them the rights of even “associate” or “naturalized” citizenship—including leaving one’s home township without official permission—and left their status vulnerable to arbitrary administrative action.

In February 2015, former President Thein Sein declared “white cards” invalid. They were replaced with so-called “turquoise cards” on an uncertain legal basis. The new cards appear to offer the same limited rights as white cards, providing for residency but little else. “Temporary citizens” also had their voting rights removed last year in an amendment to the electoral laws prior to the November general election

The 1982 Citizenship Law has been strongly criticized as discriminatory by members of the international community. The UN General Assembly in December 2014 adopted a resolution calling on the Burmese government to amend the law so that it no longer discriminates against the Rohingya. In an open letter sent to President Thein Sein in January 2015, US-based advocacy organization Human Rights Watch urged the Burmese government to accept the UN’s call.

“Burma’s discriminatory citizenship law not only deprives Rohingya of citizenship, but for decades has encouraged systematic rights violations,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “Amending the law to bring it in line with international standards is the first step for resolving this long-standing human rights abomination.”

Criticism of the 1982 law within Burma has been more muted. However, Ko Ni, an outspoken legal advisor to the NLD who strongly criticized the previous government’s policies toward minorities, told The Irrawaddy that the 1982 Citizenship Law does not align either with existing Burmese law or with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It was a discriminatory move made under the military dictatorship of Ne Win and the law needs to be amended, Ko Ni said, adding that ethnicity and religion should not feature on citizenship documentation, since this also can lead to discrimination. “If someone is born in Burma and lives there all their lives, we have to regard them as a citizen of Burma,” Ko Ni said. “It is harmful if people are divided into ‘classes.’”

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that Bangladesh gained its independence from India. In fact it was Pakistan from which Bangladesh seceded.