At the heart of the Rohingya’s decades-long struggle in Myanmar lies a question of identity, along with a desire for citizenship and the basic rights that come with it. But even for those Muslims that can now call themselves Myanmar citizens, life remains a daily struggle
Mahla refuses to recall how her house was destroyed in October 2012. Just mentioning that episode brings tears to her eyes. Moreover, she suffers from a heart condition, and the doctor has advised her “not to think about bad things”. That month, a wave of sectarian violence between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya and Kaman communities swept through several townships in Rakhine State. The Muslims bore the brunt of the violence.
Ever since, this 52-year-old mother of five has lived in a ramshackle hut in the Taung Paw Camp, where 2,916 Muslims are confined near the outskirts of Myebon, a small, isolated town in which the Buddhist and Muslim communities had lived peacefully for generations.
Most Rohingya in Rakhine lack legal recognition by the Myanmar state, but Mahla is one of the very few who has attained citizenship in recent years. As part of a pilot programme launched in her township in September 2014, she was given a ‘pink card’, the document that signals she is a full citizen.
The Rohingya are almost universally reviled by the country’s Buddhist majority population and have been oppressed by the government since the late 1970s. The Rohingya ethnicity is not included in the list of 135 officially recognised “national races” adopted in the late 1980s. Instead, they are labelled as ‘Bengalis’, implying that they are trespassers from the territory that is now Bangladesh.
The controversial Citizenship Law passed in 1982 makes belonging to one of the “national races” the primary criterion of citizenship, but not the only one, and it was not its application that rendered stateless most of the Rohingya.
“Although the 1982 Citizenship Law was clearly regressive, it did not render any group of people stateless on paper,” explained Nick Cheesman, a fellow at the Australian National University and expert on rule of law in Myanmar. “Actually, it recognized as citizens those who were already recorded as such… regardless of how they were identified racially or religiously. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the government launched a process of re-registration, taking old ID cards to re-issue new ones, Muslims in Rakhine State were not issued with new cards even when they were legally entitled to them.
“The problem in contemporary Burma is that the notion of national races surpasses that of citizenship, both legally and ideologically. The 1982 Citizenship Law may recognise that members of non-national races who held citizenship previously would keep it, but it set as the gold standard for citizenship to be a member of one of the national races,” he added.
Mahla, meanwhile, was sitting in the ramshackle hut she shares with her husband and five children when she explained to Southeast Asia Globe how and why she got citizenship. “We call ourselves Rohingya, but the government doesn’t allow us to use our name. During the verification process [for the 2014 pilot programme], the authorities told us that we would have more opportunities if we accepted [being labelled] ‘Bengali’ and got citizenship,” she said.
The designation ‘Bengali’ was also applied to some Kaman, a Muslim group in Rakhine that does feature in the list of 135 “national races”. Maung Zaw, a 45-year-old father of three also confined in the Taung Paw Camp, showed us the pink card he was given three years ago. On the card he is listed as Bengali, but he also produced, with puzzlement, his family book stating that both of his parents were Kaman.
In another hut in Taung Paw Camp, Gulban’s wrinkles and shattered demeanour reveal a life of suffering and make her look much older than her 53 years. She does not speak Burmese, only the Bengali dialect of the Rohingya, but for years she had carefully looked after the documents that prove her family has lived in Rakhine for at least three generations – and was able to produce them when the pilot programme was launched. Now she is a Myanmar citizen, at least on paper.
“I heard the word Rohingya from my parents when I was a child, but it’s not accepted by the immigration department. They laughed at me and told me to go when I pronounced it once in their office. Bengali means we are from Bangladesh, and I am from Burma, but I’m willing to accept it if I can get citizenship and rights,” she explained.
“But nothing has changed for me since I got citizenship,” said Gulban, echoing a sentiment expressed by all the recently recognised citizens Southeast Asia Globe interviewed in the camp. Regardless of their status, they share the same restrictions on movement imposed on all Muslims in Rakhine, the same difficulties accessing education or healthcare, and the same sense of hopelessness.
Tin Shwe, the general administrator of Myebon township, was in charge of the pilot programme in 2014. “Virtually all Muslims applied for citizenship, and none of them used the word ‘Rohingya’. They don’t use that word here. We eventually gave full citizenship to 97 people and naturalised citizenship to 969 of them,” he said.
“We gave them citizenship according to the 1982 Citizenship Law, even though they are not naturally citizens,” he added. When asked what distinguished them from ‘natural citizens’, he replied: “They don’t belong to any of our indigenous races.”
“They can move whenever they want, they can go to Sittwe [the state capital], or from there to Yangon, but to go to Yangon they need to inform the immigration authorities,” he explained. However, several of the Muslim citizens interviewed by Southeast Asia Globe asserted that travel permits are difficult to get and necessitate exorbitant bribes to the police.
Gulban said that she did not wish to travel outside of Myebon: “I’m poor, and I wouldn’t have anywhere to go, but I don’t want to be confined in this camp.”
Mahla, however, was anxious for her children. “They can only receive primary and middle education here; I’m very worried about their future,” she explained. “They can’t get educated properly, and they will languish if they can’t get out of here.”
An ethnic Bamar from central Myanmar, Tin Shwe blamed the local Buddhist Rakhine population for the restrictions of movement imposed on Muslims. “When the programme was implemented it was met with strong protests from the indigenous community. I tried to explain the law to them, but it’s difficult for the government, because we found ourselves between both communities. Local people don’t allow [the Rohingya] to go to the hospital, so we send doctors to the camp – both government doctors and members of international NGOs,” he said.
The main mobiliser of the Rakhine community in Myebon is Khin Thein, the local chair of the Rakhine Women’s Network. “The Kalar [a derogatory term used in Myanmar for people of South Asian descent] don’t belong here. With the previous military government, they used to come from Bangladesh and bribe the local officials to get legal documents because they had a lot of money. That’s why we cannot accept most of them and we protested,” she explained at the jewellery shop she owns in downtown Myebon.
She claimed that people from Bangladesh are still trying to settle in Myanmar – despite the fact that conditions for Muslims in Rakhine worsened dramatically after 2012. When asked for evidence, her reply invoked a powerful force in fuelling inter-communal conflict in the state: “I don’t have concrete evidence, but I have heard rumours.”
Bananda Phyabawga, the 60-year-old abbot of Pyanabakeman, a local Buddhist monastery, expressed similar ideas about Islam. “If you look at history, countries like Indonesia and Afghanistan used to be Buddhist, but they became Muslim. They try to impose their religion on others, so we need to handle this threat,” he said in front of a hall full of novice monks and other youngsters listening intently to his words.
The abbot’s discourse echoed that of Myanmar’s extremist Buddhist organisations, such as MaBaTha or 969, that have emerged in recent years. However, Rakhine nationalists are at least as resentful of the domination by the largely ethnic Burman government as they are of the perceived Muslim invasion of their land.
“Our biggest enemy is the Myanmar government. I support the Arakan Army [an armed group which has been occasionally active in recent years in the state] and I want the Fatherland of Rakhine to be independent,” Khin Thein said.
But beyond the divergences between Rakhine nationalists such as Khin Thein and government officials such as Tin Shwe, all of them seem to agree that the Rohingya are not ‘natural citizens’ of Myanmar. And they all offered the same recipe to solve the inter-communal conflict plaguing Rakhine State: time.
“It is impossible to live together now, but it may be possible within five or ten years,” said Phyabawga. Beyond that, nobody seemed able to suggest any concrete strategy to restore the coexistence that was in place before 2012.
Back in Taung Paw camp, after five years of confinement in which even citizenship has not improved the lot of those fortunate enough to attain it, the passing of time only adds to the desperation. And the goals of its inmates seem to be far more modest than many in Myanmar believe. “I don’t know what human rights are,” said Gulban. “I just know I would like to have food at my table, freedom of movement, education for my children, access to healthcare and for my family to live without fear.”