The issue of the Rohingya and violence in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine will never be resolved unless the elite in the country adjust their attitude towards this ethnic minority and include them in the notion of a state.
Strong reaction from lawmakers, legal experts and citizens of Myanmar against a call for a citizenship law amendment made by Thomas Quintana, the UN's Human Rights Envoy to Myanmar a week ago, shows the complexity and sensitivity of the issue in the country.
Quintana recommended Myanmar amend the 1982 citizenship law to end discrimination against many ethnic groups, notably the Muslim Rohingya who are in conflict with the Buddhist Rakhine and authorities.
The UN official, indeed, is not the first person to address this issue of improving the human rights record in Myanmar. Many progressive figures, rights groups and non-government organisations, have consistently urged authorities to adjust the law to fit to new circumstances in a modern world.
To their concern, the law narrowly defines only some, not all, ethnic people as citizens of Myanmar.
Article 3 of Chapter II of the law says “nationals such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine or Shan and ethnic groups as have settled in any of the territories included within the State as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1185 BE, 1823 AD are Burma citizens.”
The law defines Burmese as Burman and uses the term ‘Burma citizen’ as it was written before the name of the country was changed to Myanmar.
Myanmar registered 135 ethnic groups as its citizens, but Rohingya, whom the authorities call Bengali, were not included as an ethnic grouping in the country under the 1982 law.
The Deputy Minister for Immigration and Population Kyaw Kyaw Tun, replied to a question by Khin Saw Wai, an MP representing Rakhine State, during a parliamentary session of the Lower House last week, that there were no Rohingya in Myanmar.
“There has never been a Rohingya race in Rakhine State. According to the censuses conducted in 1973 and in 1983, the country's ethnic groups include no Rohingya. That term was not mentioned either in the British gazettes,” Kyaw Kyaw Tun said.
According to the census, non-ethnic citizens in Myanmar included Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Bengali and Nepalese, he said.
Bengali, the term used by Myanmar authorities and the elite in the country, were migrants taken by the British Empire into Myanmar before it regained independence in 1948. They were made to engage in farm work.
Myanmar did not accept other historical arguments that the Muslim Rohingya had their own kingdoms before an expansion of Buddhists from the Irrawaddy valley in the 17th-18th centuries.
However, whatever they are called, Myanmar law recognises only the third generation of Bengali born to their parents who came to live in Myanmar before 1948. The rest, or those who failed to prove the connection with that generation, are regarded as illegal migrants.
Myanmar’s concern for the migrant issue is based on security. Many lawmakers oppose the idea to amend the citizenship law as they fear a loose law might allow ‘non-citizens’ to enter the country easily. Some lawmakers even called on the legislative body to amend citizenship laws to provide for tougher punishment for illegal migrants.
Next month, President Thein Sein will receive a report from an investigation commission set up to probe violence in the Rakhine state.
The final report, which claims to be a comprehensive one to address the causes and reasons for the conflict, would be meaningless unless it mentions the real and deep roots that have been implanted in the mindset of the upper hierarchy of the country.