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Burma's Discriminatory Citizenship Laws Are at the Heart of the Humanitarian Crisis Faced by Rohingya Muslims

04/06/2013 17:44 BST | Updated 04/08/2013 10:12 BST

Stripped of their Burmese citizenship in 1982 and subjected to shockingly discriminatory laws and practices, the minority Muslim Rohingya community in Burma has been described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Since inter-communal violence - which overwhelmingly targeted the Rohingya population - broke out in June 2012 in Rakhine State in western Burma, tens of thousands of Rohingyas have been forced out of their home areas in a campaign described as by Human Rights Watch in its recent report. 'All You Can Do Is Pray' as 'crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing'. They have been forced into squalid displacement camps in areas that are unsafe in the upcoming monsoon season.

As shadow minister for international development in the UK, and as a British Member of Parliament with many constituents who had raised their concerns to me about the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority group in Burma, I wanted to see their situation for myself. With the support of Refugees International and Burma Campaign UK, I visited displacement camps in Rakhine State just last month and heard directly from Rohingya people about the terrible situation that they are facing.

Visiting camps where malnutrition rates are dangerously near emergency levels, and people are forced to live in segregated areas cut off from their livelihoods and struggling to survive, I did not expect citizenship and identity to top the list of issues people wanted to talk about. Yet every group of Rohingya men and women with whom I spoke told me that a priority issue for them was recognition of their Rohingya identity and the restoration of their Burmese citizenship rights. Everything we talked about came back to a lack of citizenship as the central problem they were facing. For example, when I asked them about whether they could return to their home areas, they told me that it was too dangerous for them to go back without protection, and that they believed that the government would only provide them with protection if it decided to recognise them as citizens. Many were keen to insist that ethnic Rohingya Muslims have been in Burma for centuries and yet the national and state government denies them their Burmese citizenship and their ethnic 'Rohingya' identity, instead claiming they are 'Bengali' migrants from Bangladesh. The issue of citizenship is the key to the right to freedom of movement, work, marriage and much more and for those in the IDP camps, the lack of a resolution on the question of their citizenship means they are effectively living the lives of prisoners in these camps with no right to get out. Humanitarian assistance and medical support has to be brought to them. With many camps only having access to medical attention once a week if they are lucky, in emergencies, patients' prospects of survival are very slim. I also found that the only local hospital that is willing to treat Rohinghya Muslims has allocated a segregated unit with 12 beds. The rest refuse to treat them.

While I was in Rakhine State, the Rakhine Investigation Commission report was released publicly. The Burmese government had commissioned this report to investigate the June 2012 violence - notably the Commission had no Rohingya members, and its only two Muslim members were dismissed. The Commission report refers to the Rohingya community as "Bengalis", and accepts the version of history that is expounded by the leadership of the Rakhine Buddhist population - that the Muslim community in Rakhine State consists of "illegal immigrants" who mostly came over during British colonial rule in the 1820s. Yet in reality there is evidence of significant Rohingya presence in Rakhine State since the 7th Century.

Despite its many serious flaws, the Rakhine Investigation Commission report does contain some useful recommendations, and it does recommend that "the government needs to urgently initiate a process for examining the citizenship status of people in Rakhine State." But it says that this should be done by implementing the provisions of the current 1982 Citizenship Act. This 1982 Act listed 135 "national races" entitled to full citizenship, and did not include the Rohingya in the list. There are processes in the 1982 Citizenship Act for acquiring naturalised citizenship, but this is not the same as naturalised citizenship in other countries, like the US. In Burma naturalised citizenship does not give the same rights as full citizenship and it is not a path to full citizenship. Naturalised citizens are barred from practicing several professions, and they cannot stand for elected office. Further, under Burmese law, naturalised citizenship can be revoked for a number of reasons such as "showing disaffection or disloyalty to the State" and "committing an offence involving moral turpitude". For these reasons Rohingyas told me that they only trusted full citizenship. One Rohingya leader told me: "If we accept naturalised citizenship, all we have to do is get into an argument with a full citizen and we will lose our rights."

While I was visiting Rakhine State, tensions around questions of identity and citizenship were extremely high. I visited two days after government "verification teams" were going to Rohingya displacement camps and villages requiring Rohingya to sign forms headed "Bengalis" to count household members. Understanding that the government had said it would be initiating a process to examine people's citizenship, Rohingyas refused to sign the forms, as they feared that signing would jeopardise their right to Burmese citizenship. Rohingya children lined up chanting "Rohingya, Rohingya, Rohingya". It is alleged that some stones were thrown, and that security services injured at least two children by firing shots overhead.

A more sinister recent development - following the publication of the Rakhine Investigation Commission report which suggested the use of family planning education to address what it described as the rapid growth of the Muslim population - is that local state officials in Rakhine state have decided to enforce a "two-child policy" on Rohingya Muslims. This ban has been in place since 1994, but had lapsed in recent years. This is a chilling development and a gross violation of their human rights.

After my visit to Rakhine State, it was clear to me that the future of Burma and its whole reform process were not assured unless the question of citizenship for the Rohingya minority is properly addressed. The international community must push the Burmese government to amend its 1982 Citizenship Act to ensure that all persons in the country have equal access to citizenship and are not discriminated against on grounds of ethnicity and religion.