By Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Sunil Barua
Rohingya leaders in Bangladesh on Friday guardedly welcomed a pledge by Myanmar’s shadow government to grant citizenship to members of their stateless community if and when it returns to power, with refugees saying they have been cheated many times before.
Master Md. Ilias, who fled Myanmar and lives in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, said he was one of the Rohingya leaders consulted by the parallel Burmese civilian National Unity Government before it issued its groundbreaking statement on Thursday.
“In the past, they [the majority Buddhist leaders] repeatedly cheated and suppressed us. But we cautiously welcome the statement,” Ilias told BenarNews.
“We want to believe that the NUG will return all of our civil and political rights and citizenship, but many of us would not trust them so easily.”
Tun Khin, a Rohingya in Britain, said the NUG’s pledge “is a welcome step forward … but its policy is far from perfect.”
Rohingya also expressed disappointment that the parallel civilian government’s statement from a day earlier did not refer to the Burmese military’s atrocities against the Rohingya as constituting a “genocide,” or what the United Nations described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
“The NUG Myanmar must, crucially, recognize that a genocide is taking place against the Rohingya,” said Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya organization in the U.K., via Twitter.
“If we can’t face the reality of the past, there is no way that we can build a common future.”
In its statement, the NUG said that all of Myanmar’s citizens were sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya “as all now experience atrocities and violence perpetrated by the military.”
They were referring to violence unleashed by the Myanmar military against anti-coup demonstrators since the generals overthrew an elected government on Feb. 1.
Back in 2017, a brutal military crackdown caused more than 740,000 members of the Rohingya community to flee Myanmar’s Rakhine state and seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh.
The NUG said that when it drafts a new constitution, it would scrap a 1982 law that denies the Rohingya minority Myanmar citizenship.
“The process of repealing, amending, and promulgating laws, including the 1982 Citizenship Law, by the new constitution when the drafting is completed will be beneficial in resolving the conflict in Rakhine state,” the NUG said in the statement.
Burmese junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, on the other hand, reiterated last month that the Rohingya were not Myanmar citizens.
Unlike the NUG, he refused to call the minority Muslim community “Rohingya,” saying they were “Bangladeshi.” He also said his country’s constitution did not allow repatriation of non-citizens.
The junta is firmly in control in Myanmar, having ignored a consensus by Southeast Asian nations, which called for an end to violence that has led to the deaths of close to 850 people, mostly anti-coup protesters, since February.
On Friday, Association of Southeast Asian Nations representatives met in Myanmar with Min Aung Hlaing, six weeks after that consensus was hammered out in Jakarta, the Associated Press reported.
No details were immediately available about what transpired at that meeting, but observers had said the ASEAN representatives would likely lay the groundwork for naming an envoy to Myanmar, which was one of the main points of the consensus reached on April 24.
Arakan Army issue
The NUG also said that when it unseats the military, it would abolish National Verification Cards, “a process that the military has used against Rohingya and other ethnic groups coercively and with human rights violations.”
But Rohingya leader Ilias said it wasn’t just the Burmese military that violated human rights, because civilian administrations, too, had suppressed the Rohingya.
“The Myanmar military and the Mogh have systematically carried out massacres with genocidal intent for decades, forcing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to take refuge in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the U.S. and other countries,” Ilias said.
Mogh is what the Rohingya call Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.
Besides, Ilias said, the presence of other armed groups would hamper the Rohingya’s ability to work with the NUG.
“We can work with the NUG. But our return would be almost impossible if the Arakan Army occupied Rakhine,” Ilias said.
“In that case, joining hand with the NUG would bring no benefit; we are worried about it.”
Ilias was referring to a major armed Buddhist group in Rakhine that is fighting for self-determination.
The Arakan Army and other Buddhists in Rakhine won’t be on board with the NUG’s proposed plan to give the Rohingya citizenship either, said Dil Mohammad, a Rohingya leader who lives in the no-man’s land in Bandarban district, on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
“We also know that the Mogh would not accept the NUG decision to restore our civil and political rights. So, we are skeptically optimistic,” Mohammad told BenarNews.
‘Monumental shift’ in policy
The NUG said it was committed to the “voluntary, safe and dignified” repatriation of Rohingya refugees.
Bangladesh, which hosts close to 1 million Rohingya, has insisted that while it shelters the refugees, the ultimate goal should be their repatriation.
BenarNews on Friday sought comment on the NUG’s statement from the Bangladesh foreign ministry, but Md. Delwar Hossain, director general of the Myanmar desk at the ministry, declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Southeast Asian rights group Fortify Rights said the NUG’s statements represented “a monumental shift” in policy by Myanmar’s now ousted politicians.
Still, its statement noted that the shadow government’s shadow cabinet does not include any Rohingya representatives.
Humayun Kabir, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to the United States, was not as enthused as Fortify Rights about NUG’s statement.
“This is simply a statement. Now, the NUG needs to formalize it and sign a written agreement with the Rohingya for the restoration of the civil and political rights of the Rohingya as well as their recognition as one of the legitimate ethnic groups of Myanmar,” Kabir, president of a private think-tank, the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, told BenarNews.
“Given the decades of bitterness between the majority Buddhists and the Muslims, the NUG needs to do more to earn the trust of the Rohingya community. The Rohingya would not believe them so easily.”