August 1, 2012

V. Denial of Citizenship Rights to Rohingya

The Burmese government has long denied Rohingya the right to obtain citizenship in Burma. This has facilitated human rights abuses against them, and poses a serious obstacle to achieving a durable solution to the sectarian violence in Arakan State and resolving the situation of Rohingya refugees. Burmese authorities consider most Rohingya who have been permitted to reside in Burma as “resident foreigners,” and deny them citizenship. In practice, the term Rohingya itself is generally not accepted or used by the government, which commonly refers to the population as “Bengali,” “so-called Rohingya,” or the pejorative “Kalar.”[123]

Most protections of international human rights law extend to non-citizens as well as citizens, except for limitations on political rights, such as the right to vote. However, various human rights violations have accompanied Burma’s denial of citizenship to Rohingya, including restrictions on freedom of movement, discriminatory limitations on access to education, arbitrary detention, forced labor, and discriminatory taxation and confiscation of property. While many of these abuses have been meted out by the Burmese government on the ethnic Arakan population as well, the Rohingya in Arakan State are often the main targets of such abuse.

The Rohingya’s inability to obtain Burmese citizenship dates back decades. In the mid-1970s, Burma required all citizens to possess National Registration Certificates under the Emergency Immigration Act, but Rohingya were only given Foreign Registration Cards, which many schools and employers would not accept.[124]

In 1983, in what appeared to be a response to the mass repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh in 1978, the Burmese government completed a nationwide census in which the Rohingya were not counted, rendering them stateless through exclusion. The 1982 Citizenship Act legalized this exclusion by omitting Rohingya from the list of ethnic groups entitled to citizenship. The law designates three categories of citizens: (1) full citizens, (2) associate citizens, and (3) naturalized citizens. Color-coded Citizenship Scrutiny Card’s are issued according to citizenship status—pink, blue, and green, respectively. By law, full citizens are persons who belong to one of the eight recognized "national races" (Arakan, Burman, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan) or those whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823, the beginning of British occupation of what is now Arakan State. If individuals cannot provide evidence that their ancestors settled in Burma before 1823, they may still be eligible for naturalization. Those persons who qualified for citizenship under the 1948 law, but who would no longer qualify under the 1982 law, are considered associate citizens if they applied for citizenship before the 1982 law went into effect.

Following the implementation of the 1982 law, foreigners may become naturalized citizens if they can provide "conclusive evidence" that they or their parents entered and resided in Burma prior to independence in 1948. Persons who have at least one parent who holds one of the three types of Burmese citizenship are also eligible to become naturalized citizens. Beyond these two qualifications, section 44 of the 1982 act stipulates that a person seeking to become a naturalized citizen must be at least 18 years old, able to speak one of the national languages well (the Rohingya language, a dialect related to Chittagonian, is not recognized as a national language), of good character, and of sound mind.[125] According to the terms of the law, only full and naturalized citizens are “entitled to enjoy the rights of a citizen under the law, with the exception from time to time of the rights stipulated by the State.” All forms of citizenship, “except a citizen by birth,” may be revoked by the state.

Provisions in the 1982 law perpetuate the citizenship crisis by denying citizenship to children born to non-citizens. According to reliable but confidential sources, there are an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 unregistered Rohingya children in northern Arakan State, referred to as “blacklisted children,” who are born to individuals below 18, unregistered couples, or to a parent in Bangladesh.[126] In order for a child to attain Burmese citizenship, at least one parent must already hold one of the three types of Burmese citizenship. Most Rohingya lack formal documents, any means of obtaining documents, or any way of providing “conclusive evidence” of their lineage in Burma.[127] Rohingya who cannot provide the government "conclusive evidence" of their lineage or history of residence find themselves ineligible for any class of citizenship, along with their children.

Apart from the question of citizenship is the question of ethnicity. Burmese law does not recognize the Rohingya as one of Burma's national races. While some Rohingya trace their lineage back centuries, many families migrated to and settled in Arakan during the British colonial period, which under the 1982 law directly excludes them from citizenship and does nothing to help establish them as an ethnic nationality of Burma. Even for those Rohingya whose families settled in the region before 1823, moreover, the onerous burden of proving it to the satisfaction of the Burmese authorities has made it nearly impossible for many to secure Burmese citizenship, let alone status as an ethnic race or nationality of Burma.

In June 2012, several Rohingya told Human Rights Watch that local authorities or Arakan confiscated their ID cards. A Rohingya woman, 38, who survived an attack by an Arakan mob, said, “They [the attackers] brought a lot of cars and they were loading our belongings into the cars. They even took our IDs. They forcibly took our IDs.”[128] Tens of thousands of Rohingya lost their belongings to arson in June 2012, which plausibly would have destroyed important documentation and identity cards of thousands; this will be create additional problems for them under the current legal framework.

A Rohingya man, 42, told Human Rights that he feared the forcible relocation of Rohingya outside Sittwe was being done in a way that would create a paper trail identifying the displaced as “guests” in Burma. He said:

A high-ranking immigration officer came today and said he wanted a list of people who are taking shelter. He said he wanted a list so we made a list. We were given a written form to fill out, and instead of referring to displaced people, the form referred to “guest people.” We said, “We are not guests here.” The immigration officer replied, “I cannot do anything, this is from the higher authority. I just have to follow orders.”[129]

Human Rights Watch has long called on the Burmese government to amend or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law to recognize or grant citizenship to Rohingya in Burma on the same basis as others with genuine and effective links to Burma by reasons such as birth, residency, or descent, and treat them as equal citizens under Burmese and international law.

[123] A person who has communicated with senior government officials on the issue told Human Rights Watch that in everyday usage the authorities do not use the word “Rohingya,” opting instead for “Bengali.” He said: “The government regards them [Rohingya] as foreign invaders, and if you give aid to them, you are feeding the enemy. This is how they think in Nyapyidaw.” Human Rights Watch interview #14, Yangon, Burma, June 2012. The ethnic Arakan population commonly uses the pejorative “Kalar,” “Bengali,” and “so-called Rohingya” in reference to the population.

[124] Human Rights Watch, Burma: Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus?, September 1996, p. 29, (accessed July 12, 2012).

[125]Sections 42 to 44 of the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law on the qualifications required for Burmese naturalized citizenship read:

42) Persons who have entered and resided in the State prior to 4th January, 1948, and their children born within the State may, if they have not yet applied under the Union Citizenship Act, 1948, apply for naturalized citizenship to the Central Body, furnishing conclusive evidence.  43) The following persons, born in or outside the State, from the date this Law comes into force, may also apply for naturalized citizenship: (a) persons born of parents one of whom is a citizen and the other a foreigner; (b) persons born of parents, one of whom is an associate citizen and the other a naturalized citizen; persons born of parents, one of whom is an associate citizen and the other a foreigner; (d) persons born of parents, both of whom are naturalized citizens; (e) persons born of parents, one of whom is a naturalized citizen and the other a foreigner. 44) An applicant for naturalized citizenship shall have the following qualifications: (a) be a person who conforms to the provisions of section 42 or section 43; (b) have completed the age of eighteen years; be able to speak well one of the national languages; (d) be of good character; (e) be of sound mind.

[126] Human Rights Watch interview with international official, Rangoon, Burma, June 2012.

[127] Ibid.

[128] Human Rights Watch  interview Z.H., Sittwe, Arakan State, June 2012.

[129] Human Rights Watch interview Z.I., Sittwe, Arakan State, June 2012.