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Some Rohingya families, understandably, wish to return to Burma after spending years in camps in Bangladesh, but conditions in the townships in Arakan from which they fled still have not significantly improved. Discrimination against the Rohingya in Burma continues unabated, and the structural causes of the initial 1991-92 exodus remain unresolved. Denial of citizenship, forced labor, and arbitrary confiscation of property continue to prompt new refugee flows and limit the reintegration of those who have returned.

Denial of Citizenship

The most critical issue remains the legal status of the Rohingya in Burma and the implications that it carries in practice. While they have been permitted to reside in Burma, most Rohingya are considered by the Burmese authorities to be "resident foreigners," not citizens. This lack of full citizenship rights means that the Rohingya are subject to other abuses, including restrictions on their freedom of movement, discriminatory limitations on access to education, and arbitrary confiscation of property. Denial of citizenship, and of the rights that go with it, inevitably pose serious obstacles to the achievement of a durable solution to the refugee flows.

The 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, promulgated not long after the mass return of Rohingya who fled in 1978, distinguishes between three categories of citizenship: citizenship, associate citizenship, and naturalized citizenship. A person is issued a color-coded Citizenship Scrutiny Card consistent with his or her citizenship status - pink, blue, and green respectively.23 Citizens are persons who belong to one of the national races (Kachin, Kayah (Karenni), Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Shan, Kaman, or Zerbadee) or whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823, the beginning of British occupation of Arakan State. If a person cannot provide evidence that his ancestors settled in Burma before 1823, he or she can be classified as an associate citizen if one grandparent, or pre-1823 ancestor, was a citizen of another country. Those persons who qualified for citizenship under the 1948 law, but who would no longer qualify under this new law, are also considered associate citizens if they had applied for citizenship in 1948. To become a naturalized citizen, a person must be able to provide "conclusive evidence" that he or his 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. Beyond these two qualifications, Section 44 of the act stipulates that the person must be eighteen years old, be able to speak well one of the national languages (the Rohingya language, a dialect related to Chittagonian, is not one), be of good character, and be of sound mind.24

The stipulations of the Burma Citizenship Law governing the right to one of the three types of Burmese citizenship effectively deny to the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring a nationality. Despite being able to trace Rohingya history to the eighth century, Burmese law does not recognize the ethnic minority as one of the national races. Many Rohingya families migrated to and settled in Arakan during the British colonial period which would immediately exclude them from citizenship. Even for those Rohingya whose families settled in the region before 1823, moreover, the onerous burden of proof has made it nearly impossible for all but a handful to secure citizenship. Rohingya who cannot provide "conclusive evidence" of their lineage or history of residence find themselves ineligible for any class of citizenship. And because of their formal legal status as resident foreigners, Rohingya are subject to restrictions on their freedom of movement, are denied access to higher education, and are restricted from holding public office.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the Burmese government to repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law or else amend it in accordance with the recommendations of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar and to grant Rohingya full citizenship and accompanying rights.25 The U.N. special rapporteur called on the Burmese government to "abolish its over-burdensome requirements for citizens in a manner which has discriminatory effects on racial or ethnic minorities."26

UNHCR is the international intergovernmental organization which has special responsibilities for stateless persons. Designated by the United Nations General Assembly as a mediating agency under Article 11 of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, UNHCR's role was further defined by its Executive Committee Conclusion No. 78 of 1995. This confers on UNHCR the mandate to promote state accession to both the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, as well as to the aforementioned 1961 Convention, and to "promote the prevention and reduction of statelessness through the dissemination of information, and the training of staff and government officials; and to enhance cooperation with other interested organizations."

In pursuit of this mandate, UNHCR has urged the Burmese government to review its citizenship law, including as part of its National Convention deliberations, and has offered to consider the provision of financial, technical, and legal support for government distribution of Citizenship Scrutiny Cards.27 But Burma's ruling SPDC has, to date, made no progress in addressing the legal obstacles to a sustainable return of Rohingya refugees and has responded negatively to UNHCR overtures.

Provisions in the 1982 law perpetuate the Rohingya citizenship crisis by denying Burmese citizenship to children born to those considered non-citizens. In order for a child to attain Burmese citizenship, at least one parent must already hold one of the three types of Burmese citizenship. In this respect, the citizenship law conflicts with the Burmese government's obligation under Article 7 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states, "The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right to a name, the right to acquire a nationality...States Parties shall ensure implementation of these rights in accordance with their national law and their obligations under the relevant international instruments in this field, in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless." The Burmese government ratified the convention in 1991 and is obliged to grant citizenship to children born in Burma who would otherwise be stateless.

Freedom of Movement

The Burmese government restricts Rohingya from traveling within Arakan, to other parts of the country, and abroad. It is a well established principle of international law that any person who is lawfully in the territory of a state should enjoy the right to freedom of movement and residence within that state. This principle is enshrined in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.28

Drawing on the Registration of Foreigners Act and Rules of 1940, the Burmese government requires Rohingya villagers to obtain a travel permit from their local Peace and Development Council chairman to cross township and state boundaries.29 A valid permit allows a Rohingya to travel for up to forty-five days. A copy must be submitted to authorities upon departure and arrival at the destination. Should a Rohingya wish to stay overnight in a village within the township, a similar permit must be procured and then presented to the headmen of the home village and the village visited. Heavy fines of up to 10,000 kyat (twenty-nine US dollars) and detention have been imposed on those violating the requirements. The necessity of documentation has exposed the Rohingya to systemic exploitation by corrupt officials. Rohingya routinely must pay bribes to the authorities to obtain travel documents. A source familiar with Arakan State told Human Rights Watch that a strict screening procedure for those who wish to make the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) has also invited bribery and inhibited the ability of Rohingya to fulfill one of the tenets of the Muslim religion.30 The western area military commander has final authority over who may undertake the Muslim pilgrimage.

Education and Employment

The Burmese government reserves secondary education for citizens only. Rohingya do not have access to state run schools beyond primary education.31 The Rohingya's lack of citizenship also bars them from securing positions in the civil service. Many Rohingya therefore cannot be teachers or health workers nor are they permitted to participate formally in local government.

Arbitrary Confiscation of Property

As in many parts of Burma with a high military presence in Arakan, soldiers have required villagers to provide them with rice and livestock. With the central government unable to provide adequately for its 450,000 strong army, battalions have often turned to extortion and theft as well as forced labor. Extortion has manifested itself in the confiscation of food and demands for bribes at checkpoints. Rohingya must routinely pay higher fees for travel than other Burmese. A Rohingya woman living in Bangladesh but outside the refugee camps reported that before she came to Bangladesh just over a year before, Burmese soldiers had taken chickens from her on a regular basis.32 In another case related to Human Rights Watch, members of a NaSaKa unit demanded and took a truckload of watermelons from a farmer's field.33 Soldiers who commit such acts reportedly do so with impunity.

Forced Labor

Local government authorities continue to require Rohingya to perform forced labor. Human Rights Watch was told that those who refuse or complain are physically threatened, sometimes with death, and that children as young as seven years old have been seen on forced labor teams. The compulsory, unpaid labor includes work in state-run, profit-making industries and construction of "model villages" for non-Muslim migrants in Arakan.

In most areas, forced labor is organized by a NaSaKa officer or local Peace and Development Committee member. Typically, the officer comes to a village in the morning and demands that a set number of laborers are provided. This demand is passed down through village leaders in order that they instruct villagers to report to the work site. Wealthier villagers can often pay someone else to take their place but others must send family members to the site. Rakhine villagers in northern Arakan do not have to participate in these projects.34

In his report to the United Nations General Assembly of October 4, 1999 Rajsoomer Lallah, the U.N. Special Rapporteur, pointed out that the Burmese government maintains this practice in many parts of Burma, especially in ethnic minority states.35 At its annual meeting in June 1999, following a commission of inquiry into the use of forced labor in contravention of the Forced Labour Convention of 1930 (29), the International Labor Organization (ILO) banned the Burmese government from participating in its activities or benefiting from its technical assistance until it takes positive action in response to the commission's recommendations.36 These included immediate cessation of the use of forced labor and abrogation of those sections of the Village Act and Towns Act under which it is legally sanctioned. In May 1999, the SPDC issued an order recommending that local authorities stop using forced labor, but no significant reduction in its application has been reported.

In 1994, after lobbying by UNHCR, Arakan state officials informally agreed to limit forced labor demands in northern Arakan to four days a month. The UNHCR sub-office in Cox's Bazar told Human Rights Watch that some authorities adhered to the four-day-a-month principle and have even paid workers, although only around twenty kyat (US five cents) per day for their labor.37 In many communities, however, Rohingya continue to be subjected to more onerous obligations. Rohingya report that units of the Burmese military have continued to conscript villagers for work in excess of seven days a month without pay on model villages, infrastructure projects, portering and military camp maintenance. The number of days Burmese authorities have required villagers to work appears to be governed by local commanders and not by a general regional policy.38

A man from a village in Maungdaw Township who left Burma for Bangladesh in late 1997 described his experience to Human Rights Watch as follows:

The village headman was responsible for drawing up the list of those who will go give forced labor. If your name is not checked off as attending the work project, you will be detained or fined. We had to do all sorts of work from hauling stone for the road and cutting trees to clear a path for its construction to cleaning the army base. This was all going on just two years ago, before I came. The road was the Tumburu to Bangladesh border connecting road. The army didn't give us any food or pay us to do the work. The local Rakhine did not have to do any work. The pattern was that one man worked one day and then you had two days free to do your own work. I did some farming and day labor for about seventy kyat a day. This roadwork was for the NaSaKa. If the military caught you to go portering, then you had to work seven to fifteen days. If you cannot go, you must pay eight hundred kyat. The military would take us portering on their patrols to look for the Rohingya Solidarity Organization. We had to carry both bullets and rice along with many other things. I didn't see it happen but we heard they shoot some people. The army warned us that if anyone complained about portering to the UNHCR that person would be killed. UNHCR could not know what was going on.

The UNHCR office was two kilometers from our village but they only came occasionally and the government watched for them. Because the UNHCR office was nearby the army didn't torture people in the village. UNHCR came to visit and just saw that everything was fine.

The villagers also had to work as sentries. The sentries guarded the village at night without pay or food. If anyone fell asleep, he had to pay the military or NaSaKa five kilograms of petrol or two chickens. I saw this happen to a man once. He got caught sleeping and the NaSaKa and the chairman caught him and demanded five kilograms of petrol or two chickens.

I didn't have citizenship and the forced labor left me insufficient time to work on my own fields or make money. I had no money and no food so we left.39

A woman from Maungdaw Township who came to Bangladesh in July 1998 cited forced labor as one of the main reasons she left Burma.

The army made villagers go work on the Tang Ma Road. I had to go and break stones that would be used for the road surface. The army did not pay us or give us any food. I had to work in seven to fifteen day shifts from seven in the morning until eight in the evening. I couldn't go home so I had to sleep in the army camp. Each time the army would come to collect twenty to forty villagers to go work. The village headman made the lists and if we did not go, we could be arrested. I worked on this project from 1997 to early 1998.

Just before I left I was working for the state owned Sukrasa Sugar Mill in Kaung Daung. I had to cut sugar cane and then carry it to the trucks. Here again I worked seven to fifteen day shifts with no pay or food provided.40

The case above illustrates the use of compulsory labor in state agricultural industry - a profit-making venture. Sources inside Burma also reported the use of forced labor on a NaSaKa-owned peanut farm in early 1999.

Children as young as seven years old have been seen working on road repair in 1999 in some of the areas to which Rohingya refugees have returned. One witness described the working conditions to Human Rights Watch:

The children were working on widening a road in Maungdaw Township. They had to dig a ditch and broaden the road and then put down chipping stones to maintain the track. Occasionally, a soldier gave a child a swat with a bamboo cane if that child became sluggish or lax. The local Peace and Development Council chairman arranged it with the help of a Muslim assistant.

Use of child labor directly contravenes the Burmese government's duties under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Construction of model villages was also reported to be on the rise in 1999. The Burmese government initiated the model village program in 1988 to encourage ethnic Burman Buddhist villagers from the Irrawaddy delta to move voluntarily into the sites.41 Later, the government forced villagers to move and drew people from the delta and within Arakan. For the new villages built in 1999, many of the occupants were drawn from Rangoon, to which a substantial number of rural villagers had migrated during the mid 1990s to find jobs in the construction industry. When construction projects evaporated in the wake of the Asian economic crisis, these people were left without jobs and the government has since moved people out of the city in order, it appears, to minimize the risk of urban unrest. Model villages are reserved exclusively for Buddhists, so Muslim Rohingya are prohibited by the government from occupying them.

Most often, though, it is the Rohingya who must pay for the construction of model villages through the provision of land, labor and building materials. Authorities have frequently confiscated Rohingya lands and ordered Rohingya families to provide labor and building materials for the construction of model village homes.42

Sources from inside Arakan interviewed by Human Rights Watch in August 1999 said that in one area of Maungdaw that year, each Rohingya village tract was responsible for building two houses in the model village. Villagers had to collect wood from the forest, cut it into boards, and build each house from scratch, a process that took several hundred hours of labor per house. For the construction of another model village in Buthidaung, also in 1999, Burmese authorities confiscated approximately 250 acres of land, including prime farmland, from nearby Rohingya villagers. The villagers reportedly thereafter experienced difficulties in securing food.43

23 For more on the Citizenship Scrutiny Cards see Human Rights Watch, "Burma: The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus?" (New York: Human Rights Watch), Vol. 8, No. 9 September 1996, p. 26.

24 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; (c) 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;

(c) be able to speak well one of the national languages; (d) be of good character; (e) be of sound mind.

25 Human Rights Watch, "Burma: The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus?" (New York: Human Rights Watch), Vol. 8, No. 9, September 1996; Human Rights Watch and Refugees International, "Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh: The Search for a Lasting Solution," (New York: Human Rights Watch) Vol. 9, No.7, August 1997.

26 Yozo Yokota, "Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar" (Geneva: U.N. Commission on Human Rights) E/CN.4/1993/3, February 17, 1993. Yokota resigned as special rapporteur in 1993 to be replaced by Justice Rajsoomer Lallah. From the time he accepted the position, Lallah has not been permitted to enter Burma.

27 On the National Convention see Janelle M. Diller, "The National Convention: an Impediment to the Restoration of Democracy" In Peter Carey (ed.), Burma: The Challenge of Change in a Divided Society, (New York: St. Martin's Press) 1997, pp. 27-54; The National Convention was SLORC's response "to the 1990 landslide election victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD). The National Convention...was conceived by the SLORC as a mechanism to draft a new constitution for the country in accordance with military wishes." Diller, p. 27.

28 Burma has not signed or ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

29 A Rohingya traveler must submit five photographs and procure eight copies of this Form 4, or "Suspect Form," prior to departure. Among other personal data, the form requires the applicant to record her race/nationality.

30 Human Rights Watch interview, August 23, 1999.

31 Article 26(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 13(b) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights guarantees accessibility to secondary education.

32 Human Rights Watch interview with a Rohingya woman, August 8, 1999

33 The NaSaKa (Border Administration Forced) was created in 1992, after the Rohingya exodus, and comprises five different government agencies: the police, military intelligence (MI), Lon Htein (riot police), customs, and the Immigration and Manpower Department. The NaSaKa is under the direct command of the SPDC and the army's Western Commander based in Sittwe. See Human Rights Watch and Refugees International, "Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh: The Search for a Lasting Solution," August 1997, p. 13.

34 Human Rights Watch interview, August 23, 1999.

35 Rajsoomer Lallah, Situation of human rights in Myanmar, October 4, 1999.

36 "ILO concludes 87th Conference: Adopts new instruments against child labour and resolution on Myanmar," ILO Press Release, ILO/99/23, June 17, 1999.

37 Human Rights Watch discussion with UNHCR Sub-Office, Cox's Bazar, August 10, 1999; Human Rights Watch interview with Rohingya woman, Cox's Bazar, August 8, 1999.

38 Human Rights Watch interview with UNHCR Sub-office, Cox's Bazar, August 10, 1999.

39 Human Rights Watch interview, Cox's Bazar, August 9, 1999.

40 Human Rights Watch interview, Cox's Bazar, August 8, 1999.

41 Living conditions in the model villages vary but are generally poor. The government often constructs the houses in remote locations with no access to a market. Some do not have any good source of water or a proper sanitation system. The Burmese government initially supplies the villagers with some basic assistance such as oil, rice, peas, cartwheels and a little money, but the villages quickly exhaust these meager supplies.

42 Human Rights Watch interview, August 23, 1999.

43 Correspondence with Human Rights Watch, December 19, 1999.

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