Since August, over 600,000 Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, have fled their homes to escape persecution. These refugees have been forced to take shelter in makeshift settlement camps in Bangladesh, where disease and malnutrition have contributed to a pervasive gap in human services. In recent weeks, as a cold front has set in around the camps, there has been increasing concern over children freezing.
As a result, it should come as a reprieve that Bangladesh and Myanmar have signed a tentative agreement to send the Rohingya back to their home in the Rakhine State. While the details are still in flux, the understanding appears to be based off a framework that resolved a similar Rohingya refugee crisis in 1993. Among other things, this means that Rohingya who can prove that they possessed identification documents prior to the crisis can return home.
The issues surrounding this proposal are numerous, not least of which is the lack of clarity on where the Rohingya would even reside – most of their villages were decimated in the violence. The underlying challenge, however, is how the repatriated Rohingya will overcome historical barriers upon their return; Myanmar’s government has denied the Rohingya citizenship and, consequently, access to basic rights.
Proponents of the agreement suggest that if the Rohingya return with documentation, they may soon receive legitimate citizenship. However, even if citizenship is included as a condition to the Rohingya’s return, it is unlikely to serve as a solution to this multidimensional crisis. An anti-Rohingya sentiment is deeply embedded in the fabric of Myanmar’s society. Throughout the country, the Rohingya are characterised as dangerous intruders, intent on proliferating radical propaganda across the nation.
Citizenship is unlikely to ease this predisposition, partially because legal issues compound the social stigma – despite holding citizenship, there are countless cases of ethnic groups that are denied access to justice and basic services. With this in mind, it is a real possibility that as the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh ends, another one will soon reappear in Myanmar.
A conditional citizenship
Myanmar’s rule of law is fragile and tenuous so the constructs of citizenship that uphold established democracies do not exist in the same capacity. Laws surrounding nationality and ethnicity propagate a convoluted, hierarchal system that relies on proof of ancestry as a precursor to full rights. In other words, if residents cannot prove that they had two ancestors living in Myanmar prior to 1823, they can be denied full citizenship.
The system is intentionally prejudicial. Myanmar’s ethnocracy has systematically elevated Buddhist notions and values; as a result, the principles that define democracy, such as pluralism and parity, are elusive. Instead, what prevails is a societal structure that is stratified and discriminatory. Rather than using citizenship as a mechanism for inclusivity, Myanmar has passed laws that have manipulated it into an assimilation barrier for non-Buddhists.
Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law is the cornerstone of this system. The law not only fails to recognise the Rohingya as citizens, it also places those who have citizenship into three tiers: full citizens, associate citizens and naturalised citizens. Associate citizens are typically ethnic minorities who face discrimination from public officials and, subsequently, limited social and political freedoms.
The Kaman: a cautionary tale
It would seem that even this partial citizenship should, in theory, allow the Rohingya to live peacefully and independently. However, an examination of the Kaman people, a Muslim ethnic group who hold associate citizenship, casts doubt on this notion.
Often perceived as demographically insignificant, the Kaman are largely overlooked in Myanmar. Recognised as an indigenous population, they have nevertheless faced similar threats as their stateless counterparts. During the 2012 Rakhine State clashes between the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists, the Kaman were forced out of their homes and into internal camps. Five years later, they remain caught up in the violence.
Unlike the Rohingya, as citizens, the Kaman should enjoy access to justice and the protection of the law. In recent years, however, as the anti-Muslim violence has risen in Myanmar, the Kaman have been denied fundamental rights including voting rights and freedom of movement.
As a peaceful ethnic group, the government has no rationale to deprive the Kaman of their rights aside from discrimination and neglect. This is most clearly reflected in the Kaman’s difficulty in obtaining citizenship documentation. In 2014, 2,000 displaced Kaman applied for national identification cards they lost in the violence, but after drawn out deliberations, only 38 had their requests granted.
With no prospects of legal recourse, the issues surrounding the Kaman are symptomatic of a failed justice system and a society that seems to value their lives solely based on race and creed. This same fate is likely to befall the Rohingya who return with documentation; societal prejudice will trump any sort of legitimacy they may be granted.
A bleak road ahead
It is flawed to believe that a citizenship system that has been used to deprive the Rohingya of their rights for so long can suddenly be used as an instrument to safeguard their future; especially when that system has a history of discriminating against those who already fall under its purview.
If the current state of affairs in Myanmar is not enough to raise concerns about the repatriation agreement, perhaps precedent can shed some light on the situation. The Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar in the past, and each time many have been forced to return to the same environment and the same treatment. Even in instances when they have been granted a political voice, like in the 1990 election when they won a small percentage of seats, it has been short lived. Following those elections, the generals annulled the results and launched a violent crusade against the Rohingya.
Once they return, there is no evidence that legal recognition will provide the Rohingya with the reconciliation, or protection, they need to secure a future in Myanmar. A long-term solution that allows the Rohingya to prosper in the Rakhine State would involve significant reforms in Myanmar’s laws and an overhaul of bias shown towards the Rohingya. These are tall orders, and as both Bangladesh and Myanmar are eager to resolve the crisis, it seems unlikely that they will be taken into consideration.
Pablo Aabir Das is with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.