Making Rohingya statelessness

Burmese government records of Rohingya

In his article, “A friend’s appeal to Burma”, published on 19 June 2012, Benedict Rogers noted that the first President of Burma, Sao Shwe Thaike, a Shan, said that “Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to the indigenous races of Burma. If they do not belong to the indigenous races, we also cannot be taken as indigenous races”.

“The people living in Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships are Rohingya, ethnic of Burma” said Burma’s first prime minister U Nu in a pubic speech on 25 September 1954 at 8 pm. “The Rohingya has the equal status of nationality with Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan” said the prime minister and minister for defense U Ba Swe at public gatherings in Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships on 3 and 4 November 1959.

“The people living in Mayu Frontier is ethnic Rohingya” included in the announcement of Frontiers Administration office under Prime Minister Office on 20 November 1961. Mayu Frontier is composed of Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Rathedaung Townships.

Broadcasting from radio program in the Rohingya language was relayed three times a week from the indigenous language programme of the official Burma Broadcasting Service in Rangoon, from 15 May 1961 to 30 October 1965. Myanma Encyclopedia Vol.9, page 89-90, published in 1964, concludes that population of 500,000 living in Mayu Frontier of Northern Arakan State 75% is Rohingya. “The majority people live in Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Rathedaung Townships are ethnic Rohingya and the minorities are Rakhine, Daingnet, Mro and Khami” wrote in Tatmataw Khit Yay journal Vol.12, No.6 printed on 18 July 1961 and Vol. 12, No.9 printed on 8 August 1961.

In his speech on 8 July 1961, the Army Deputy Commander-in-Chief Brigadier General Aung Gyi said, “The people living in Mayu Frontier are Rohingya. Pakistan (now Bangladesh) is located in west of Mayu Frontier and Muslims are living there. The people living in west are called Pakistani and the people living here are called Rohingya. This is not the only border that has same people on both sides, border with China, India and Thailand also have the same phenomenon. For example: Lisu, Ei-Kaw, La-Wa live in Kachin State and same people live in China. Also Shan people can be found in China as Tai. The ethnics Mon, Karen and Malay are also living in Thailand. In India-Burma border Chin, Li-Shaw and Naga are living. These people are living in Burma as ethnics and living in India as well”.

The Rangoon University Rohingya Students Association was one of the many ethnic student associations that functioned from 1959 to 1961 under the registration numbers 113/99 December 1959 and 7/60 September 1960 respectively. In High School Geography textbook, printed in 1978, where scattered living regions of national races of Burma is shown on page 86, Northern Arakan is marked as ‘Rohingya region’.

Rohingya elites/MPs before and after independence of Burma

After the separation of Burma from India in 1935, the “Di-Archy” system was replaced by a ruling system called “91 Taa-na” (Departments administration). In that system there were 132 seats in the governing body and a total of 132 members were elected from various communal backgrounds. In this election, Mr. Ghani Markan, a Rohingya MP from Buthidaung and Maungdaw constituency, was elected. Point to be noted here that Mr. Ghani Markan was from the Community of “Burmese national” category and they (Rohingya) represented the Burmese national and not the Indian or any other group.

The General Election for Constituent Assembly in 1947 was organized just before the independence, mainly by the participation of General Aung San. This time, Buthidaung and Maungdaw had two separate constituencies. U Abdul Ghaffar for Buthidaung and U Sultan Ahmed for Maungdaw were elected.

U Abul Bashar for Buthidaung, U Sultan Ahmed and Daw Aye Nyunt for Maungdaw and U Abdul Ghaffar for Upper house were elected in 1951 election. U Ezhar Miah and U Abul Bashar for Buthidaung, U Sultan Ahmed and U Abul Khair for Maungdaw, U Sultan Mahmood for Buthidaung North and U Abdul Ghaffar for Upper house were elected in 1956. U Sultan Mahmood and U Abul Bashar for Buthidaung, U Rashid and U Abul Khair for Maungdaw and U Abdu Suban for Upper house were elected in 1961. By then the Rohingya community were involved more actively in politics. For the first time, one of the Rohingya elected member became a cabinet minister of Prime Minister U Nu’s government. He was U Sultan Mahmood, and in charge for the ministry of Education and Health. U Abdul Ghaffar and U Abul Bashar, elected members of Buthidaung became the Parliamentary Secretaries.

Even in the era of U Ne Win, the Rohingya exercised voting and representing rights in the Pyithu Hluttaw (National Assembly) Election and in the election of different levels of Pyithu (National) Council. Likewise, many Rohingya dignitaries were endorsed in the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) and some of them held higher positions as well. U Abul Hussein and Dr. Abdur Rahim were elected in 1974 from Buthidaung and Maungdaw.

Rohingya have been subjected to the discriminatory measure initiated in 1978 by the then BSPP and local authority of Rakhine community. They started to take the initiative to deprive the fundamental rights of Rohingya community and since then the Rohingya were marginalized from the Pyithu Hluttaw Election. U Tun Aung Kyaw aka Abdul Hai, was the only Rohingya representative elected in 1978 election from Maungdaw, but none from Buthidaung. The Rohingya were excluded from participating in the Pyithu Hluttaw elections in 1982 and 1986. However, some Rohingya were seen at lower levels of Pyithu Council of the BSPP.

In 1990 multi party general election, Rohingya exercised the voting and representing rights again. U Kyaw Min, U Tin Maung, U Chit Lwin and U Fazal Ahmed from National Democratic Party for Human Rights (NDPH) were elected from Buthidaung and Maungdaw constituencies. Later U Kyaw Min became a member of Committee Representing People’s Parliament (CRPP).

Making Rohingya stateless

Rohingya people used to have National Registration Cards (NRC) like everyone else in the country. Upon introduction of discriminatory policies on Rohingya by Ne Win in 1970s, the NRCs were taken away by various measures. Numerous check-points were set up to block Rohingya’s travel and to confiscate their IDs. Nagamin (the Dragon) operation in 1977-78 was skillfully crafted to drive out all Rohingya from Burma. It produced about 250,000 refugees that fled to neighboring Bangladesh. However, most of the fleeing refugees were returned to their original dwelling places, so the plan was not quite successful for the Burmese regime. Although systematic discriminatory policies were in place and IDs and other government issued documents were seized by the government, Rohingya remained as citizens of Burma until 1982. The Citizenship Act promulgated in 1982 is the official document that striped off the citizenship of Rohingya.

Numerous forms of discriminations followed by the enactment of 1982 Citizenship Law and lives of Rohingya had become incomprehensible. Again, another operation was carried out in 1991 by the successive military regime and it produced about 300,000 refugees, but this time about 200,000 remained in Bangladesh, of which, 28,000 are recognized refugees by the UNHCR and the rest are scattered around the country and are not recognized as refugees.

In the meantime, the regime uses different methods to eliminate (force out) the Rohingya population for the region: confiscation of farmland, establishing Buddhist settlement on Rohingya’s land, force labor, restriction on movement, restriction on marriage, harassment, desecration of religious places, arbitrary taxation, extrajudicial killings, rapes, and the list goes on.

The new National Scrutiny Card was introduced in 1989 and Rohingya were not entitled to receive them as they have become non-citizen under the 1982 Citizenship Act. However, the authorities issued Temporary Scrutiny Card to all and promised twice in 2008 constitution referendum and 2010 election that National Scrutiny Card will soon be issued to all the Rohingyas. But the promises made to Rohingya were never honored.

In a recent parliament session, when some MPs raised the issue of Rohingya, the immigration minister U Khin Yee said that “there is no Rohingya in Burma”. The same was echoed by the director general of the population department at a later date. Although many Rohingya were members of National League for Democracy (NLD) in Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships during 1990 election, now the vice chairman U Tin Oo and other high ranking officials of NLD are openly saying that there is no race called ‘Rohingya’ in Burma, which is an utter disregard for historical facts, human rights and democratic principle. NLD’s discriminatory policy on Rohingya is no less than that of the military regime.

There is no justice for Rohingya in Burma as racism is deeply rooted in Burmese society. Rohingyas are made scapegoats to justify their evil doings by both ultra-nationalist racists and the regime to divert public attention. As history cannot be deleted or altered, the truth needs to be revealed and justice needs to be established. It is the human rights defenders that need to work hard to establish justice and defend the rights of the unjustly persecuted.

Nay San Lwin is an activist and Vice President of the Burmese Rohingya Association in Deutschland. He can be reached via Twitter @nslwin