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(New York) – The Burmese government should accept the United Nations call to amend the discriminatory law that deprives Rohingya Muslims of Burmese citizenship, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to President Thein Sein.

On December 29, 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on the Burmese government to amend the 1982 Citizenship Law so that it no longer discriminates against the Rohingya. Successive Burmese governments, including the current administration of Thein Sein, have used the law to deny citizenship to an estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million Rohingya by excluding them from the official list of 135 national races eligible for full citizenship.

“Burma’s discriminatory citizenship law not only deprives Rohingya of citizenship, but for decades has encouraged systematic rights violations,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Amending the law to bring it in line with international standards is the first step for resolving this long-standing human rights abomination.”

Human Rights Watch has long documented serious abuses of Rohingya in Burma, including ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

The Burmese government should request assistance from the UN to amend the citizenship law to meet international standards. This would include providing Rohingya full citizenship on a non-discriminatory basis and ensuring that children are never made stateless. The category of “associate citizen” and other forms of second-class citizenship that give local officials legal tools and bureaucratic latitude to deny minority groups their full rights should promptly be eliminated.

“The appalling treatment of the Rohingya is a major blight on the Burmese government’s efforts to bring human rights reform,” Adams said. “Failing to redress the misery inflicted by government policies on the Rohingya is a recipe for prolonged repression.”

Sectarian violence between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya and other Muslims erupted twice in 2012, leading to approximately 167 deaths and widespread property destruction. A second round of violence in October 2012 resulted in government-backed crimes against humanity amounting to a campaign of ethnic cleansing aimed to drive the Rohingya from urban areas of Arakan State. There remain over 140,000 internally displaced Rohingya and Arakanese in camps throughout Arakan State. Many Rohingya have been receiving only rudimentary and inadequate assistance due to government restrictions and Arakanese ultra-nationalist intimidation against international aid workers.

The March-April 2014 census conducted by the Burmese government with assistance from the United Nations Population Fund did not enumerate people who self-identified as Rohingya. Preliminary results released in August estimated that 1.09 million people were not counted.

In response to the prolonged displacement, the government formulated a draft Rakhine Action Plan, which was disclosed by the media in September 2014. The plan contained discriminatory provisions that could, if enacted, ensure long-term segregation of displaced Rohingya and enshrine statelessness as a national policy. Months after a promised release, the Rakhine Action Plan has yet to be made publicly available, which adds to concerns in affected communities.

Thein Sein needs to ensure that any “action plan” to address displacement and other humanitarian issues in Arakan State does not include forced relocation, segregation of ethnic groups, or measures in violation of international human rights law. Instead, the government should establish conditions and provide the means to allow displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or other places of voluntary resettlement.

“The Burmese government is planning policies that will enshrine permanent segregation and denial of basic freedoms for the Rohingya,” Adams said. “Concerned governments shouldn't be playing along with this charade, but insisting on the granting of full citizenship on the basis of equality under the law.”

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