(New York) – A draft government plan would entrench discriminatory policies that deprive Rohingya Muslims in Burma of citizenship and lead to the forced resettlement of over 130,000 displaced Rohingya into closed camps, Human Rights Watch said today. Burma’s international donors, the United Nations, and other influential actors should press the government to substantively revise or rescind its “Rakhine State Action Plan.”
The plan follows the April 2013 recommendations of the Rakhine Investigative Commission, established by President Thein Sein after widespread killings and violence against Rohingya in 2012 in the state. The plan, a copy of which was obtained by Human Rights Watch, does not recognize the term Rohingya, referring throughout to “Bengalis,” an inaccurate and derogatory term commonly used by Burmese officials and nationalist Buddhists. Muslims are only mentioned in the plan with reference to religious schools.
“The long-awaited Rakhine State Action Plan both expands and solidifies the discriminatory and abusive Burmese government policies that underpin the decades-long persecution of the Rohingya,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “It is nothing less than a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness that appears designed to strip the Rohingya of hope and force them to flee the country.”
The plan is supposed to serve as the general blueprint for development and post-conflict reconstruction in the state. The draft is in six sections with detailed bullet points: Security, Stability, and Rule of Law; Rehabilitation and Reconstruction; Permanent Resettlement; Citizenship Assessment of Bengalis; Socio-Economic Development; and Peaceful Coexistence. The section on “Permanent Resettlement” sets out steps for the relocation and encampment of 133,023 Rohingya people from existing internally displaced persons camps around the state capital, Sittwe, and other townships to as yet unspecified sites in the state.
The plan does not discuss the possibility that Rohingya displaced by the violence of 2012 will be permitted to return to their original homes and dispels hopes that Rohingya would be permitted to reintegrate into areas also inhabited by the local Buddhist population.
The plan has scheduled the resettlement of the entire displaced Rohingya population for April and May 2015, just ahead of Burma’s annual monsoon season. In preparation, residences, schools, community facilities, and necessary road, electrical, and water and sanitation infrastructure would be constructed by next April.
Since sectarian violence erupted in June 2012 and again in October 2012, an estimated 140,000 mostly Rohingya displaced people have been living in camps around Arakan State, where they are wholly dependent on international humanitarian assistance. Another 40,000 Rohingya live in isolated non-camp communities receiving little outside assistance. The government has failed to arrest or prosecute those responsible for the violence against the Rohingya, particularly the coordinated “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya communities in October 2012 that Human Rights Watch found rose to the level of crimes against humanity.
Rohingya, who have effectively been denied Burmese citizenship, were excluded from the March-April 2014 nationwide census and face tight restrictions on freedom of movement, employment, livelihoods, access to health care, and freedom of religion. Conditions in the displaced person camps are desperate and have evolved into long-term internment in which Rohingya are not permitted outside of camp zones. The permanent resettlement zones envisioned in the draft plan will deepen the isolation and marginalization of the Rohingya in violation of their freedom of movement and other rights.
“The Burmese government’s plan proposes segregation measures that have been advocated by extremists,” Robertson said. “Moving the Rohingya further from urban areas to isolated rural camps will violate their basic rights, make them dependent on outside assistance, and formalize the land grab of Rohingya property.”
Part IV of the draft plan outlines steps for citizenship assessment of the Rohingya, using as its guide the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law, which has been used to deny Rohingya citizenship for decades. The plan includes a nationality verification process that started in August and is supposed to register all “Bengalis” by March. The recorded population will then be divided into three categories: “those previously recorded [or] registered; those not recorded previously but willing to go through the assessment process according to Myanmar [Burma] existing laws; and those who reject definition in the existing laws.” Any Rohingya refusing the pejorative label “Bengali” would be placed in the third category and denied the right to be considered for citizenship.
For people in the first two categories, the determination of eligibility for citizenship will take place between January 2015 and October 2016. For any Rohingya failing to meet the criteria for citizenship, the authorities will “construct temporary camps in required numbers for those who refuse to be registered and those without adequate documents” and sequester them in closed camps in what amounts to arbitrary, indefinite detention with the possibility of deportation.
Burmese authorities conducted a pilot phase of the verification process in Myebon. Out of the 1,094 Muslims who took part, 209 were found eligible for citizenship, including: ethnic Kaman Muslims – listed as an ethnic group under the 1982 Citizenship Law; those who self-identified as Bengali; and an unspecified number who were accepted as Rohingya. The total number of Rohingya in Arakan State has been estimated at over one million according to the estimate of uncounted persons in the 2014 March-April Nationwide Census, and most are concentrated in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships along the border with Bangladesh. Although not directly included in the draft plan, Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships will be directly affected by provisions calling for strengthened border security and operations to stem illegal immigration.
“International donors and concerned governments should not delude themselves that this plan will lead to the Rohingya’s integration with citizenship into Arakan State,” Robertson said. “Those concerned about human rights in Burma should stand firm and demand changes to the citizenship law to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of the Rohingya.”
All international donors should reject the plan in its current form. Donors should urge the Burmese government to develop a citizenship plan based on the principle of non-discrimination, and that upholds the right of displaced people to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country.
In an address on September 29 to the United Nations General Assembly, the Burmese foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, stated that the plan was “being finalized and will soon be launched” and called on the UN to provide assistance. Several UN agencies work in Rakhine (also known as Arakan) State. They have slowly been increasing their activities since they were suspended following attacks against aid workers in March ahead of Burma’s controversial nationwide census, which discriminated against the Rohingya population.
“It is shocking that a government that claims to be reform-minded has proposed bigoted policies,” said Robertson. “It would be even more shocking if UN agencies and others play along instead of denouncing a plan that would entrench ethnic cleansing and put in place permanent segregation. International donors should reject this plan with one voice and insist the government come up with solutions that protect the rights of some of the world’s most persecuted people.”