Bangladesh: Citizenship Rights for Myanmar's Rohingya?

This post is part of our special coverage Myanmar's Rohingya.

Many in Myanmar believe that Rohingyas are Bengali Muslims who migrated to Western Myanmar (formerly Burma) after 1948. This is also the official stand of the Myanmar government which denies them citizenship according to their 1982 rule. This has opened a floodgate of discriminatory treatment against the Rohingya Muslims in the country, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to the neighboring countries including Bangladesh and Thailand.

The report of a fact finding mission by the Danish immigration service states:

In Myanmar, there are approximately 750,000 stateless Rohingya in Northern Rakhine State. Approximately 28,000 Burmese Rohingya are registered as living in two official refugee camps in Bangladesh, and more than 200,000 unregistered Rohingya live in surrounding towns and villages outside of the two camps. Malaysia hosts more than 90,000 refugees and asylum seekers, primarily in urban areas, 91% of whom are from Myanmar.

The plight and despair of people from the unregistered Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. Image by Jared Katz. Copyright Demotix (09/07/2009).

Today 750,000 Rohingyas living for generations in Myanmar face considerable prejudice from Myanmar society. They are prevented from traveling freely outside of specially-designated zones in Myanmar. They are also not allowed to serve in state positions and are barred from attending higher educational institution. Getting a marriage contract can take up to one year.

Abu Anin, a researcher, provides a history of the Arakan and the influence of Muslims in Myanmar:

In the partial census of 1954, the figures shown in the villages of Arakan were 56.75% Buddhist and 41.60% Muslims.

Nurul Islam of Rohingya Society in Malaysia writes:

‘Rohingya problem’ started in Burma from British colonial period onwards. There were violent anti-Indian (including anti-Muslim) riots in 1930-31 and again in 1938 in which several hundreds Indians and Muslims were killed in Burma. Muslim properties: shops, houses and mosques were looted, destroyed and burned under the campaign of ‘Burma for Burmese only’. Similar anti-Muslim sentiment blew up in Arakan too. [..] Bulk of the Muslims was internally displaced, and nearly 50,000 of them took refuge in the British held territories of Chittagong and Rangpur. [..]

The successive Burmese governments have had pursued policies of exclusion and persecution against Rohingyas while some hardhearted Rakhine academic and politicians are engaged in racist and xenophobic plans to marginalize and exterminate them. With preoccupation of ‘Muslim phobia’ the former dictator Ne Win promulgated an oppressive Burma Citizenship law in 1982 in order to deprive the Rohingyas of their time-honored citizenship and ethnic rights in Burma.

The Rohingya were citizens of Myanmar until the restrictive Citizenship Law of 1982 was promulgated by the late dictator Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) regime on October 15, 1982. This law essentially follows the principle of jus sanguinis (citizenship is not determined by place of birth but by having one or both parent who are citizens of the nation.)

Nurul Islam continues:

Based on how one’s forebears obtained citizenship, Ne Win stratified citizenship into three status groups: full, associate and naturalized.

Full citizens are those belonging to one of the so-called 135 ‘national races’, who lived in Burma prior to 1823 — just prior to the conquest of parts of lower Burma (Arakan and Tenassarim) by the British, or were born to parents who were citizens at the time of birth. [..] Associate citizens are those who acquired citizenship through the 1948 Union Citizenship Law. Naturalized citizenship could only be granted to those who could furnish “conclusive evidence” of entry and residence before Burma’s independence on 4 January 1948, who could speak one of the national languages well and whose children were born in Burma. Thus naturalized citizens refer to persons who lived in Burma before independence and applied for citizenship after 1982.

It is worthy of mention that the previous parliamentary government listed 144 ethnic groups in Burma. But Ne Win put only 135 groups on a short list, and then was approved by his BSPP regime’s constitution of 1974. The three Muslim groups of Rohingya (Muslim Arakanese), Panthay (Chinese Muslims), Bashu (Malay Muslims) and six other ethnic groups were deleted. It was an injustice founded on religious rancour and racial prejudice towards Muslims and smaller non-Burman groups, particularly against the Rohingya, who are not a manageable minority.

1982 citizenship law violates several fundamental principles of international customary law standards, offends the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and leaves Rohingyas exposed to no legal protection of their rights.

Thirty-one leading NGOs in Myanmar said in a statement:

The 1982 citizenship law should be repealed, and replaced with a new law founded on basic principles of human rights. The new law should honour equality and non-discrimination, and help create an inclusive and tolerant Burma.

Protesters in font of Myanmar Embassy in Malaysia scream to demand the government of Myanmar to care about the repression of ethnic Rohingya Muslims. Image by Asyraf Rasid. Copyright Demotix (3/8/2012)

The Rohingyas are in permanent limbo. To counter Myanmar's claims that Rohingyas are Bangladeshis, the Bangladesh Government amended its Citizenship Order in 1982 to officially declare all Rohingyas as non-nationals. Bangladesh recently ordered three international charities to halt aid to Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh to stop the influx from Myanmar.

Bangladeshi blogger Kornofulir Majhi [bn] explains why Bangladesh cannot help the Rohingyas:

আমদের সরকার কিছু করতে পারবে না কারন বাংলাদেশের সরকারের ঘাড়ে এখন প্রায় ১৭ কোটি উর্ধ জনগনের ভার। যাদের মানবতার নিশ্চয়তা কোন সরকারই এখনো প্রতিষ্টা করতে পারেনি। [..] তাই যে দেশের কোনও সরকার আজো পর্যন্ত তাঁর নিজের জনগনের মানবতা রক্ষা করতে সামর্থ হয়নি সেই দেশের সরকারের কাছে আবার বাইর থেকে মানবতা ধার করে আনার কথা আশা করা মুর্খতা বই কিছু না।

Our government cannot do anything because it has to cater for 170 million of its population whose human rights are yet to be established. [..] So for the government who did not succeed to uphold the human rights for its own citizens, it will be a folly to try to defend human rights of people of a neighboring land.

Article 15 of the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that:

Everyone has the right to a nationality.

No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

However the Rohingya are deprived of these rights. They are stateless, not wanted by any country. The Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) published a statement late June calling for the segregation of Rohingya Muslims from ethnic Arakanese and urged the international community and UN to “set up a time frame to resettle to the Bengalis who are not Burmese citizens to a third country”.

There are certain international conventions relating to the status of the refugees and the status of the stateless persons:

Articles 20-23: Stateless persons to be treated no less favorably than nationals with respect to rationing, housing, public education, and public relief.

Article 31: Stateless persons not to be expelled except on grounds of national security or public order.

The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness stipulates that:

Article 1(1): Contracting States shall grant their nationality to persons, otherwise stateless, born in their territory

Article 1(3): A child born in wedlock in a Contracting State shall take the nationality of its mother.

Article 4: A Contracting State shall grant its nationality to a person, not born in its territory, if either parent had that State's nationality and the person would be otherwise stateless.

Amendments on citizenship laws are possible if the government has the will power. For example, the Bangladesh High Court conferred jus soli (right to soil) citizenship to all Urdu-speaking people born and residing in the Bangladeshi territory after 1971 on humane grounds.

Jack Healy at the Huffington post thinks tolerance and reconciliation are key to the solution:

Reconciliation is imperative, but real reconciliation is possible only when those who care for Burma's future make a commitment to tolerance and human rights protection. [..] Burma's national sovereignty and brightly diverse cultural and religious heritage are not under threat by 1.3% of the population living in some of the most abject poverty, but that heritage may be stained in the violence that is getting dangerously frenzied with the idea of ethnic cleansing.

This post is part of our special coverage Myanmar's Rohingya.


  • Hnin Lay

    Nurul Islam from ARNO signed with DVB (Democratic voice of Burma) at OIC since 2008 to propagate and lobby about Rohingyas. No wonder he talks about this impossible mission. I’m just wondering which country could be forced to change its own law without the desire of majority of the public. 

  • Aung Zaw Min

    The existence of the Rooinga (English form of Rohingya) people in Arakan (Rakhine) State was historically documented in a late 18th century report published by the British, Francis Buchanan-Hamilton. In his 1799 article “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire,” Buchanan-Hamilton stated: “I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation. The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.” This is the unbiased historical evidence that the Rohingya or Rooinga had lived in Arakan (Rakhine) State before 1824, and therefore, they are  one of the original races of the Union of Myanmar. Henceforth, it must be noted that the Rohingya ARE NOT Bangalis, who recently illegally penetrated Myanmar after its independence from the UK in 1948, and that the term Rohingya was NOT INVENTED by Bangali immigrants in 1950s. The term Rohingya was used in 1799 by the natives of Arakan, who were of Mohammedan (or Islamic) faith.

    According to a scientific discovery published in the prestigious magazine,
    Science on Oct 15th, 1999 (volume 286(5439): pages 528-30), the modern human beings originated in Myanmar about 45 million years ago. Thus, the Rohingya and the Bangali races are derivatives of the Rakhine and Myanmar races; in other words they are cousins of each other. Therefore, the Rohingya are not illegal immigrants of Myanmar, but are one of the original races of Myanmar. In other words, the Rohingya did not migrate illegally from Bangladesh into Myanmar, but the Bangalis migrated out of Myanmar into present-day Bangladesh. Thus the Bangalis are as well an original race of Myanmar, even though they migrated west to present-day Bangladesh millions of years ago.

    The international community has a responsibility to protect the Rohingya from systematic state-sponsored genocide by the Rakhine and the Maynmarese races. Available evidence indicates that the Rohingya are the most persecuted minority (UN report). The Rohingya are the unfortunate victims of the brutal aggression of the Rakhine and Myanmar regime.To falsely associate them with extremism and terrorism is not only preposterous, but amounts to moral irresponsibility and ethical crime. In stead of raising concern and awareness about the severe abuses of Myanmar military regime, chastising the Rohingya for their sufferings is inhumane. They have been living in Arakan (or Rakhine) State since 8th century. They were Burmese citizens at the birth of the Union of Burma on 4th of Jan 1948. Since 1982 they have been illegally deprived of their lawful citizenship by Ne Win’s military regime. In Myanmar, the Rohingya have no freedom of speech, worship, movement or marriage. They have no access to education or healthcare. Thus we, the civilized world, who are privileged to enjoy these freedoms, must intervene to prevent them from becoming extinct. We must speak up and TAKE MEANINGFUL ACTION for restoring the lawful Myanmar Citizenship without any prejudice  to the Rohingya, granting them basic human rights and civil liberties, similar to those granted by the Constitution of the United States of America to all its Citizens without any discrimination based on race, religion, color or national origin.

  • Ken Basington

    For historical perspective on who the Rohingya are:

    Important discussion in the comments section that goes to the heart of the citizenship issue.

  • John Smith

    The perception that the Rohingyas are Bangladeshis is obviously correct. Any glance at pictures of Rohingya people shows that they are physically identical to Bangladeshi people. The linguistic evidence also shows that they are speakers of an Indo European language and not a language native to south east Asia.
    Nor do they look at all like Pathans, disproving the claim that they are decended by Afghans from the middle ages.
    There may have been Muslims called Rohingyas in the region prior to the 20th century but the bulk of the Rohingyas are likely to have arrived in the country recently and show little sign of having intermingled with the natives for very long. By contrast, the Arabs and other’s who brought Islam to Malaysia and Indonesia have completely assimilated and speak the local languages indicating that their presence there is older (they have also taken over and completely overwhelmed the native culture with their own religion).
    By contrast the Arakanese speak a language unique to Arakan and have lived there from ancient times.
    Wherever there is a Muslim minority presence among non Muslims, the Muslims are likely to be the newcomers. In fact, wherever there is a Muslim majority and non Muslim minority, usually the non Muslims are the older group with the exception of the Gulf states with their temporary immigrant workers.
    While the way the Burmese have handled the situation may not have been correct, there concerns are justified. Bangladesh has a substantial population problem and the influx of Bangladeshis into neighbouring countries is a problem in India and Nepal, as well as Burma. Furthermore, at the risk of stereotyping, it needs to be pointed out that among Muslims, there is a tendency to kidnap and rape non Muslim women. This has been witnessed in England, Pakistan, Egypt and also in Myanmar by the Arakanese. This kind of thing happens in part because in Islam, it is considered to be ok to treat non Muslim women in this way. Even the early Muslim conquerors who are heroes in Islam behaved in this way.
    Most worrying for the native Arakanese is the tendency of Bangladeshis to have large families, which will lead to the eventually eclipsing of the native Arakanese by the Rohingyas. Therefore, the concern of the Arakanese is completely natural and justified under the circumstances. If one looks at Bengal itself, once a Buddhist land, Buddhism has almost disappeared there due to Islamic persecution and the remaining Buddhist minority in Chittagong are subject to persecution as are the Bengali Hindus of Bangladesh. Furthermore, the Chittagong region of Bangladesh was once a part of Arakan, until the Mughals conquered it.
    The natives Burmese and Arakanese are usually hospitable people but it is a tendency of Muslim minorities to abuse the hospitality of their hosts and to become unpopular. Arakan is not unique in witnessing this phenomenon.

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