The Rohingya Problem: Why? – Speech

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

[Author’s Note: Keynote speech delivered at the International Conference on “Contemplating Burma’s Rohingya People’s Future in Reconciliation and (Democratic) Reform,” held on August 15, 2012 at the Thammasat University, Bangkok.]

As a conscientious global citizen of our planet, I have been writing for the past 32 years since my days as a university student on a plethora of issues, which include history, culture and civilization of the peoples of the South Asia and the Middle East. I have also studied and written on international politics, human rights and terrorism. In my decades of studies I have not found a people that are more persecuted than the Rohingyas of Myanmar, or what used to be called Burma.

It is, therefore, necessary that we learn of this greatest tragedy of our time so that we can work towards finding a lasting solution to it. On a personal level, I consider it to be a privilege to be able to speak on the plight of this persecuted people in front of an audience that care and want to stop their misery. I take this opportunity to thank the organizers, esp. Mrs. Chalida Tajaroensuk (People’s Empowerment Foundation), Mr. Salim Ullah (JARO or Arakan Rohingya Organization-Japan) and Mr. Anwar Burmi (Rohingya National Organization in Thailand) for inviting me to this international conference. My thanks are also to the university administrators, and faculty, staffs and students of the Political Science department of the Thammasat University, Bangkok, Thailand for hosting this much-needed event. Thank you all for joining us here, esp. those who came from different parts of the world (e.g., Japan, Canada, USA, Myanmar, Malaysia, Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Singapore).

I have come here not to debate but to discuss. I have come here not to talk as an expert on Arakan but to speak as a human being who cares deeply about our humanity. After all, what is more important than being an intelligent and rational person who can think, analyze and offer solutions that bind us all together on common themes that go beyond our identity as a race or an ethnicity?

The great Persian poet Shaykh Sa’di (1231-1291 C.E.) wrote:

“Adam’s sons are body limbs, to say;
For they’re created of the same clay.
Should one organ be troubled by pain,
Others would suffer severe strain.
Thou, careless of people’s suffering,
Deserve not the name, “human being”.”
[Tr. H. Vahid Dastjerdi (Mashriq-e-Ma’rifat)]

I would like to believe that we care and want to stop the suffering of the persecuted Rohingya people. As such, we deserve the name “human beings.”

International Laws on Fundamental Rights

Who would have thought that in our time, some 64 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the world community to guide its behaviors and actions we would see so much of intolerance and persecution of peoples based on their race or ethnicity? The Preamble of UDHR reads:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,… Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge, Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”

There are 30 Articles of the UDHR, starting with “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…” The second one reads: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…” When it comes to the Rohingya, ladies and gentlemen, not a single one of these rights is honored by the Myanmar government. These unfortunate people are denied their right to citizenship while the 15th Article clearly states: “(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

The preamble of the United Nations says, “WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and ….”

And yet, the Myanmar government, being a member of the United Nations, denies citizenship right to the Rohingya people. By doing so, it is committing a terrible crime.

What’s wrong with Burma Citizenship Law (1982)?

The Burma Citizenship Law (1982) states:
Chapter II – Citizenship

3. 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 B.E., 1823 A.D. are Burma citizens.

4. The Council of State may decide whether any ethnic group is national or not.

The name Rohingya was deliberately expunged from the list of 135 national races (which includes 1 Burman major race plus 7 deputy races plus 127 sub-races) of Burma, thus, opening the door for all types of discrimination. [A comparison with the 1948 Union Citizenship Act, as shown below, would reveal that the 1982 Law altered the word Arakanese to Rakhine, thus effectively excluding the minority Rohingyas of Arakan from their shared national status. Similarly, the word ‘ethnic’ was put in place of ‘races’.] Because of their racial and religious ties with the people of Bangladesh – living on the other side of the Naaf River, they are treated as if they have migrated from there since the days of British annexation of Arakan in 1826 C.E., after the First Anglo-Burman War of 1824-26. Forgotten there is the historical evidence that the ancestors of today’s Rohingyas have lived in Arakan from time immemorial (see the history books written by experts like Professor Abdul Karim, Dr. Moshe Yegar and many others).

Interestingly, the author of this highly discriminatory law during the military dictator Ne Win era was (late) Dr. Aye Kyaw, a Rakhine academic who was a key figure in the formulation of racial policy of the ANC (Arakan National Congress). Through this ‘criminal’ law, Dr. Kyaw ensured virtual elimination of the Rohingya people from his native Arakan, where they comprised roughly half the population (i.e., 47.75% according to the estimate of Dr. Shwe Lu Maung in 2005).

As I have noted elsewhere ANC’s doctrine is Rakhine neo-Nazi Fascism, which espouses superiority of the Rakhine race over all other races in Arakan. [See the book – The Price of Silence: Muslim-Buddhist War of Bangladesh and Myanmar, A Social Darwinist’s Analysis by Shwe Lu Maung alias Shahnawaz Khan, DewDrop Arts & Technology, USA (2005), pp. 232-244.] Interestingly, Dr. Kyaw had no moral bite to deny the Rohingya of their due share in citizenship while he himself became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He and many of his Rakhine racist followers (including Aye Chan, Khin Maung Saw), of course, did not have to prove ancestral ties of more than 160 years for acquiring citizenship in their adopted countries, something that they demanded that the Rohingyas and many other minorities must now do to be eligible for such rights! What hypocrisy and what a grave crime to rob an entire people!

Note that according to the draft constitution for the Arakan state, formulated by the ANC, “The citizenship of the Republic of Arakan shall be determined and regulated by law. The citizen of Arakan shall be known as Arakanese. Buddhism shall be the state religion. Only the Arakan legal entities and citizens of Arakan nationality shall have the right to own land.” Since the Rohingyas are classified as Arakan Bengalis they will be subjected to a second class citizenship with no right to run for office or own land. It is an apartheid policy of exclusion, discrimination and marginalization of the Rohingya, who are derogatorily called the Kula (Kala) much like how the Afro-Americans were treated in the USA as the Black Niggers.

As noted by Dr. Shahnawaz Khan (Shew Lu Maung), the Rakhaing neo-Nazism is not an isolated small group, but it is a widespread phenomenon led by the umbrella group ANC and supported by most of the Rakhine intellectuals and professionals. The tactics of the ANC and hate provocateurs like Aye Chan, Aye Kyaw and Khin Maung Saw include the total marginalization of the Rohingya people by fomenting fear that if they are not “contained (or eliminated)” as a ‘virus’ they would take over the state. Some of the members openly state that “Save our land even as Hitler if necessary … instead of losing out in foreign hands,” “put the Rohingyas in a concentration camp under UN supervision or settle them in a third country,” “mono-ethnic and majority race should control almost all so that the country can be developed easily,” “there should be no compromise on rights of ethnic Rakhine who is the descendant of Tibeto-Burman tribes (and not Bangali or Indo-Aryan),” “we inevitably have to compose our nation similar to Israel,” and “If Rohingya is to be recognized as indigenous race, any one who claims himself should take DNA test… If his DNA is different from those of the Bangali, he or should be accepted as ethnic Arakan citizen. If not, he should be chased out to Bangladesh or anywhere else away from our land.”

Such utterly racist and hateful comments are enough to prove the Fascist leanings of many of the Rakhine leaders. Funny that racist Aye Chan’s father is Haradhan Barua (Bangali Magh) and mother is an ethnic Rakhine. I wonder if Mr. Chan, who had once again rather conveniently excused himself from defending his ‘influx virus’ thesis against us, would have passed the DNA test required by his fellow racists!

The Question of being Indigenous to Arakan

Are the Muslims of Arakan who identify themselves as the Rohingya indigenous to the soil of Arakan or Burma? Our studies show without any shadow of doubt that they are indigenous, something that has also been accepted by many historians (even within Burma, pre-dating the Ne Win era) and the founding fathers of the Union of Burma. Sao Shwe Thaike who led and organized the Panglong conference in March 1946 famously said, “If the Rohingyas are not indigenous, nor am I.” In 1946 General Aung San assured full rights and privileges to Muslim Rohingya Arakanese as an indigenous people saying: “I give (offer) you a blank cheque. We will live together and die together. Demand what you want. I will do my best to fulfill them. If native people are divided, it will be difficult to achieve independence for Burma.”

Under the First Schedule to the Burma Independence Act 1947, the Rohingya were considered citizens of the Union of Burma. “1. The persons who, being British subjects immediately before the appointed day, are, subject to the provisions of section two of this Act, to cease on that day to be British subjects are the following persons, that is to say –

(a) persons who were born in Burma or whose father or paternal grandfather was born in Burma, not being persons excepted by paragraph 2 of this Schedule from the operations of this sub-paragraph; and (b) women who were aliens at birth and became British subjects by reason only of their marriage to any such person as is specified in sub-paragraph (a) of this paragraph.”

Under Annex A of the Aung San-Attlee Agreement, 27 January, 1947, the Rohingya are citizens of the Union of Burma: “A Burma National is defined for the purposes of eligibility to vote and to stand as a candidate of the forthcoming elections as a British subject or the subject of an Indian State who was born in Burma and resided there for a total period of not less than eight years in the ten years immediately preceding either 1st January, 1942 or 1st January, 1947.”

Under Section 11 of the Constitution of the Union of Burma (1947), as shown below, the Rohingya are citizens of the Union of Burma: 11. (i) Every person, both of whose parents belong or belonged to any of the indigenous races of Burma; (ii) every person born in any of the territories included within the Union, at least one of whose grand-parents belong or belonged to any of the indigenous races of Burma; (iii) every person born in any of territories included within the Union, of parents both of whom are, or if they had been alive at the commencement of this Constitution would have been, citizens of the Union; (iv) every person who was born in any of the territories which at the time of his birth was included within His Britannic Majesty’s dominions and who has resided in any of the territories included within the Union for a period of not less than eight years in the ten years immediately preceding the date of the commencement of this Constitution or immediately preceding the 1st January 1942 and who intends to reside permanently there in and who signifies his election of citizenship of the Union in the manner and within the time prescribed by law, shall be a citizen of the Union.

The Nu-Attlee Agreement (1947), signed between Prime Minister U Nu (Burma) and Prime Minister Clement Attlee (Great Britain) on Oct. 17, 1947 on transferring power to Burma was very important as to the determination of the citizenship status of the peoples and races in Burma. Article 3 of the Agreement states: “Any person who at the date of the coming into force of the present Treaty is, by virtue of the Constitution of the Union of Burma, a citizen thereof and who is, or by virtue of a subsequent election is deemed to be, also a British subject, may make a declaration of alienage in the manner prescribed by the law of the Union, and thereupon shall cease to be a citizen of the Union.”

The Section 10 of the 1947 Constitution of the Union of Burma also states: “There shall be but only one citizenship though out the Union; that is to say, there shall be no citizenship of the unit as distinct from the citizenship of the Union.”

Article 3 (1) of the Union Citizenship Act, 1948 (original statement, and amended up to 1957) reads: “3. Any person:- (a) who was born in any of the territories which, at the time of his birth, was included in His Britannic Majesty’s dominions; (b) who had resided in any of the territories included in the Union for a period of not less than eight years in the ten years immediately preceding either the first day of January 1942 or the fourth day of January 1948; (c) who is of good character; (d) who has not done any act prejudicial to the security, peace or interest of the Union; and (e) who is not disqualified as defined in section 2 of the Union Citizenship Act, 1948, may apply to the officer in the district in which he resides for a certificate of citizenship.”

[As can be seen by comparison with the amended version of 1960 (see below), the original statement did not have the “indigenous” racial criterion for citizenship.]

Article 3 (1) of the Union Citizenship Act, 1948 (as amended up to 1960) states: “For the purposes of section 11 of the Constitution the expression “any of the indigenous races” of Burma shall mean the Arakanese, Burmese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon or Shan race and such racial group as has settled in any of the territories included within the Union as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1823 A. D. (1185 B.E.).” [Author’s note: Arakanese meant all residents of the state of Arakan, e.g., Rohingya and Rakhine.]

Article 4 (2) of the Union Citizenship Act, 1948 (as amended up to 1960) states: “Any person descended from ancestors who for two generations at least have all made any of the territories included within the Union their permanent home and whose parents and himself were born in any of such territories shall be deemed to be a citizen of the Union.”

These two categories of people and those descended from them are automatic citizens who did not require applying to court for naturalization. Rohingya are for all intents and purposes Arakanese and they are also a racial group who had settled in Arakan/Union of Burma as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1823 A. D. (1185 B.E.).

The Rohingyas were not subjected to any laws related to Registration of Foreigners before or after Burma’s independence such as the Foreigner Act (Indian Act III, 1846), the Registration of Foreigners Act (Burma Act VII, 1940) and the Registration of Foreigners Rules, 1948.

During colonial administration Rohingya representatives were elected from North Arakan as Burmese nationals from the national quotas.

The Rohingya people exercised the right of franchise (the right of citizenship and the right to vote) in all elections held in Burma from British colonial rule up to the present such as, 91 Department Administration election (1936), Aung San’s Constituent Assembly election (1947), all elections during parliamentary rule (1952, 1956, 1960), Ne Win’s BSPP (Burma Socialist Programme Party) constitutional referendum and election (1974) and SLORC military multiparty election (1990), military SPDC’s constitutional referendum (2008) and its multi-party election (2010).

There were Rohingya MPs. Minister, parliamentary secretaries, professionals, doctors, engineers, lawyers, academics, civil and military officers, and others who ran for the public offices. It is noteworthy that citizens whose parents hold FRCs (Foreign Registration Cards) are not allowed to run for a public office.

The parliamentary government (1948-1962) had officially declared Rohingya as one of the indigenous ethnic groups of Burma. The declaration from Prime Minister U Nu said: “The people living in Maungdaw and Buthidaung regions are our national brethren. They are called Rohingya. They are on the same par in status of nationality with Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. They are one of the ethnic races of Burma.”

As can be seen, the Rohingyas were accepted as indigenous to Arakan by all Burmese government that preceded Ne Win. Yet, they were rendered stateless through the highly racist 1982 Law.

What’s wrong with the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982?

As duly noted by Mr. Nurul Islam of ARNO, a lawyer by training, Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 is the most restrictive citizenship law in the world promulgated by late dictator Ne Win’s BSPP regime on October 15, 1982. It violates several fundamental principles of international customary law standards, offends the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and leaves Rohingyas exposed to no legal protection of their rights. It is conflicting government’s obligation to fulfill the rights of the child as stipulated by Article 7(1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 which states that the Child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right to a name, and to acquire a nationality. The Burmese government ratified this convention in 1991 and is obliged to grant citizenship to Rohingyas.

Note also that the 1982 Citizenship Law violates:

(1) Article 24(3) of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 also states, “Every child has the right to acquire a nationality.”

(2) Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEADAW), 1979.

(3) Article 5(d) (iii) of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 1965.

The 1982 Law promotes discrimination against Rohingya by arbitrarily depriving them of their Burmese (Myanmar) citizenship. The deprivation of one’s nationality is not only a serious violation of human rights but also an international crime.

The law continues to create outflows of refugees, which overburden other countries posing threats to peace and security within the region. Of the Rohingya Diaspora an estimated 1.5 million now live in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, UAE, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, USA, UK, Republic of Ireland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and any other place they can find a shelter. The Rohingya refugee crisis with their boat people has become a regional problem of international dimension.

In his report to the United Nations in February 1996, the Special Rapporteur on Burma Professor Yozu Yokota stated, “Muslim population of Rakhine (Arakan) State was not recognized as citizens of Myanmar under the existing naturalization regulations and they were not even registered as so-called foreign residents …Their status situation did not permit them to travel in the country…They are also not allowed to serve in the state positions and are barred from attending higher educational institution.”

He recommended: “The 1982 Citizenship Law should be revised or amended to abolish its over burdensome requirements for citizens in a manner which has discriminatory effects on racial or ethnic minorities particularly the Rakhine (Arakan) Muslims. It should be brought in line with the principles embodied in the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness of 30 August 1961.”

Another 16 years have passed by since 1996, and a new regime, headed by a retired general, purporting to be reform-minded has been sworn in, and yet the apartheid 1982 Law remains intact in Myanmar. A new pogrom has started and the suffering of the Rohingya continues. In July of this year, President Thein Sein said Rohingyas were not an ethnic group of Myanmar and asked the UN refugee group to help solve their problem by taking over responsibility for the Rohingyas in refugee camps or by sending them to third counties. Simply put, his government does not want them in Myanmar.

The 1982 Citizenship Law sanctions an apartheid policy, which epitomizes neo-Nazi Fascism. As I see, it is a blueprint for elimination or ethnic cleansing of ‘other’ races. Period! The United Nations define ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ as: “Purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”

Thus, the latest pogrom against the Rohingyas of Myanmar is a continuation of that policy of total elimination of the Rohingya people, one way or another.

New ‘Myanmarism’

Since the days of military dictator Ne Win, the successive Myanmar regimes (military or quasi-civilian) have learned to exploit racial and religious sentiments to persecute minorities and non-Buddhists. As correctly noted in an earlier Karen Human Rights Group report, their power is rooted in the deep racism that has permeated Burmese society since its beginnings; not only the racial supremacy complex which many Burmans are brought up with, but the racism of the Karen against the Burmans, the Burmans against the Shan, the Shan against the Wa, the Wa against the Shan, the Mon against the Burmans, the Rakhine against the Rohingyas, the Burmans against the Chinese, the Christians against the Buddhists, and everyone against the Muslims. The list goes on and on, and the military has always exploited it to turn people against each other and thereby increase its hold onto power.

The government propaganda continues to encourage a blind racist nationalism, full of references to ‘protecting the race’ — meaning that if Burmans (the majority Bamar people) do not oppress or eliminate other nationalities or races then they will themselves be oppressed, ‘national reconsolidation’ – meaning forced assimilation (through Burmanization and Buddization), and preventing ‘disintegration of the Union’ – meaning that if the Army (Tatmadaw) falls then some kind of ethnic chaos would ensue destabilizing the state. The regime has perfected this art of Myanmarism since the days of General Saw Maung who was handed down power after the bloody crackdown of 1988. [The same recipe of containing the minority Rohingya is followed in the Rakhine state by the majority Buddhist Rakhine.]

The traditional Myanmarism has been Buddhism and militarism since the days of King Anawrahta (ca. 1044-1077 C.E.). The new Myanmarism is a toxic cocktail of ultra-nationalism and religious fanaticism (or religio-racial ultra-nationalism, as coined by Dr. Shahnawaz Khan) as coded in the Lauka-thara-pyo, which is the skeleton of the Buddhist political theology (based on the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha).

If the old one was dirty and ugly, the new Myanmarism is dirtier and uglier. In this, the ends justify the means; lies and deceptions are all too natural and acceptable strategies to rule and govern. It is a feudal recipe for disaster, which shuns pluralism, diversity and multi-culture – the very trend-setters for progress in our time. The 1982 Citizenship Law thus provides the very justification for the Myanmar regime towards elimination of the minority races like the Rohingya.

The views expressed are the author’s own


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Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Dr. Habib Siddiqui has a long history as a peaceful activist in an effort towards improving human rights and creating a just and equitable world. He has written extensively in the arena of humanity, global politics, social conscience and human rights since 1980, many of which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and the Internet. He has tirelessly championed the cause of the disadvantaged, the poor and the forgotten here in Americas and abroad. Commenting on his articles, others have said, "His meticulously researched essays and articles combined with real human dimensions on the plight of the displaced peoples of Rohingya in Myanmar, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo and Palestine, and American Muslims in the post-9/11 era have made him a singular important intellectual offering a sane voice with counterpoints to the shrill threats of the oppressors and the powerful. He offers a fresh and insightful perspective on a whole generation of a misunderstood and displaced people with little or no voice of their own." He has authored 11 books, five of which are now available through Amazon.com. His latest book - Devotional Stories is published by A.S. Noordeen, Malaysia.

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