Suu Kyi Pressed on Rohingya Citizenship

By The Irrawaddy 16 November 2012

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has emphasized that two countries are to blame for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis in western Burma while admitting that the issue of citizenship must be closely examined.

In an interview for Indian television channel NDTV broadcast on Thursday, the National League for Democracy chairwoman adopted a true politician’s voice when she tiptoed through the different issues surrounding the Arakan State conflict.

“Violence is something I condemn completely,” she said. “But don’t forget that violence has been committed by both sides, this is why I prefer not to take sides and also I want to work towards reconciliation between these two communities. I’m not going to be able to do that if I’m going to take sides.”

The recent communal violence between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims which first erupted in June has so far killed around 180 people, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced more than 110,000 people, most of whom are Rohingya, according to official figures.

“This is a huge international tragedy,” she added. “This is why I keep saying that the government must have policy about the citizenship laws. We do have a citizenship law and all those entitled to earn citizenship under the law must be given citizenship. We’ve said this very clearly.”

There are 135 official ethnic groups in Burma according to the widely-condemned 1982 citizenship law enacted by former dictator Gen Ne Win. The Rohingya, of whom the UN estimates there are 800,000 in western Burma, are not included amongst this number and have faced restrictions on travel, marriage and reproduction as a consequence.

“Now there’s a quarrel whether people are true citizens under the law or whether they have come over as migrants later from Bangladesh. One of the very interesting and rather disturbing facts of this whole problem is that most people seem to think as that there was only one country involved in this border issue. But there are two countries. There’s Bangladesh one side, there’s Burma on the other and the security and the security of the border is surely the responsibility of both countries.”

According to the UN refugee agency, Bangladesh has registered some 30,000 Rohingya in two official camps near Cox’s Bazar in recent years, but there are still an estimated 200,000 who remain unregistered and living in dire conditions in makeshift shelters.

“At the moment, it just seems as everybody thinks that the border is totally the responsibility of Burma,” said Suu Kyi. “First of all, they have got to do something about law and order. We’ve got to stop the violence from breaking out again, which means adequate security measures. “

In July, Burmese President Thein Sein shocked human rights groups by offering to resettle the Rohingya in any other country willing to accept them, despite many of the community having lived in Burma for generations.

“Burma will take responsibility for its ethnic nationalities but it is not at all possible to recognise the illegal border-crossing Rohingyas who are not an ethnic [group] in Burma,” said a statement on the President’s Office website.

Despite the UNHCR quickly rejecting this offer, it had the support of many in Burma including the leadership of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.

“The resettlement programs organized by UNHCR are for refugees who are fleeing a country to another, in very specific circumstances. Obviously, it’s not related to this situation,” said UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres.

Suu Kyi said that the citizenship law should be reexamined but held onto the belief that illegal border-crossings were also part of the problem.

“And then I think the citizenship law must be looked into and those entitled to citizenship must not only get citizenship but must be given full rights of the citizen,” said the Nobel Laureate. “And then I think they also need to look at the immigration issue.”

“Is there a lot of illegal crossing of the border still going on?” asked Suu Kyi. “We’ve got to stop it. Otherwise we have never begun to enter the problem. Because Bangladesh has said all these people have come from Burma. And the Burmese say all these people are coming over from Bangladesh. And where is the proof either way?”