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Burma's Rohingya Plan Is a 'Blueprint for Segregation'

DW Interview with Phil Robertson

Published in: DW

Burma recently confirmed to the United Nations that it is on the verge of completing a plan that would grant Rohingya Muslims citizenship if they change their ethnicity to suggest Bangladeshi origin.

Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told AP that his government has started a "verification process" to enable the mostly stateless minority who has been in Myanmar for many generations to become naturalized citizens. But he says the government is still not recognizing the Rohingya as a group.

Burma's government - which to date has refused to grant the majority of them citizenship - describes the estimated 1.1 million Rohingya as "Bengali," a term which many members of the minority group object to strongly. Many Rohingya live in Apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine state on the western coast of the predominantly Buddhist country. Since sectarian violence erupted in 2012, an estimated 140,000 displaced people - mostly Rohingya - have been living in camps.

In a DW interview, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), slams the government plan, saying that it is nothing less than a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness that appears designed to strip the Rohingya of hope and ultimately force them to flee the country.

DW: What exactly is the Myanmar government offering the Rohingya minority?

Phil Robertson: The Myanmar government is not offering the ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State very much at all. At the center of the plan is the blatantly discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law that has kept the Rohingya stateless for decades; an arbitrary and opaque citizenship 'assessment' process; and the very likely prospect that most of the over 130,000 Rohingya ensnared in this plan will face years of indefinite detention in locked down, crowded and squalid camps for displaced persons.

For the Rohingya to enter the so-called citizenship verification process, they will be first forced to repudiate their ethnic identity in what is a clear violation of their rights. Put simply, Rohingya can only apply for citizenship under this plan if they agree to adopt the "Bengali" label that they have resisted for years because it connotes that they are coming from outside Myanmar rather than being persons born in the country.

The few that are found to be citizens in the assessment process will presumably have the rights to move and live where they wish - but as many commentators have noted, even if a Rohingya is able to achieve citizenship, that will not protect him if he strays into a Rakhine Buddhist area.

What is your overall view of the plan?

The clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in 2012 left scores of people dead and injured

This plan both expands and solidifies the discriminatory and abusive government policies that underpin the decades-long persecution of the Rohingya. To be frank, the plan is a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness that appears designed to strip the Rohingya of any remnants of hope that they had for returning to a situation like that before the 2012 violence, when Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists were able to co-exist.

It's worth considering that just two years ago before the 2012 violence, Sittwe, the capital city of Rakhine State, was roughly divided 50-50 between Rohingya and Arakanese residents. Under this plan, that will never happen again. The idea of reconciliation has been thrown aside in this plan, and replaced with so-called "peaceful co-existence" - which in my view will mean a permanent segregation of the two communities, with the separation enforced by the might of the Myanmar army and police.

How will the authorities verify who would be eligible for citizenship?

We don't have a good answer for this question as the process is far from transparent. The 1982 Citizenship Law doesn't list the Rohingya as an "ethnic race" of the country meaning that they cannot be citizens unless they can prove that their ancestors resided there before 1823, which is impossible for most.

Rohingya can be considered for "naturalized" citizen status if they can provide "conclusive evidence" that the person in question or his parents entered and resided in Myanmar prior to independence in 1948 - which is also a very high hurdle to surmount.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that ethnic Kaman Muslims are also mixed in with the Rohingya who were forced out of their homes and areas in the violence of June and October 2012. But from a citizenship perspective, the Kaman Muslims are considered one of the 135 ethnic races of Myanmar so if they can prove their ethnic heritage, they are eligible for full citizenship. So some of the Kaman may benefit from the citizenship assessment process, but they'll still have to be labeled as "Bengali" for a while when their application is under consideration.

What is the problem for the Rohingya in accepting the term "Bengali"?

Accepting the term denotes that the Rohingya are foreigners, that they are immigrants from Bangladesh and India, and that they don't belong in Rhakine state or Myanmar. Of course, the Rohingya do not accept what is essentially a denial of their proclaimed ethnic identity, their history, and their community.

For those who agree to be called "Bengali" there is a great risk that if they are not found to be naturalized citizens, they could face deportation from Myanmar. In fact, there are parts of the plan that state the government will do just that.

One part of the plan calls on the government to negotiate with UNHCR about those not qualified for citizenship according to Myanmar laws and are therefore illegal aliens, on the basis that Myanmar as a sovereign state has its own immigration laws and that it will grant appropriate documentation only to those who qualify according to its Citizenship Law. The plan then states the government should "work with UNHCR to resettle the illegal aliens elsewhere."

Why is the Myanmar government denying the Rohingya the right to determine their own ethnicity and social identity?

For some reason, the Myanmar government has decided to scapegoat the Rohingya as undesirables who cause problems. Put quite simply, it's blatant discrimination against an ethnic group. Moreover, the Myanmar federal government has essentially turned a blind eye to the actions of Rakhine Buddhist extremists to incite violence against the Rohingya and target their homes and mosques.

What could happen to those Rohingya who refuse the plan?

Those Rohingya may face years of life in locked down camps unless they decide to flee. Under the plan, those Rohingya who refuse to comply with the government's orders to accept the "Bengali" label will be deemed uncooperative and automatically be sent to permanent resettlement camps with little likelihood of release.

How much has the government's treatment of the Rohingya undermined the country's efforts to open itself to the world?

When the international community discusses human rights in Myanmar, one of the first topics of discussion is the abuse against the Rohingya. By allowing rights abuses to flourish and hatred to fester and grow in Rakhine State, the Myanmar government is doing its reform process a disservice and undermining its own efforts to create a plural, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural democracy that respects human rights.

There is no getting around the fact that left unresolved, the situation in Rakhine State will continue to undermine Myanmar's striving to be accepted by the world community. What's urgently needed now is for foreign donors and UN agencies assisting the country to demand that this plan be revoked and that the planners go back to the drawing board.

Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

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