The par­al­lel uni­verses fac­ing Kofi An­nan’s com­mis­sion

The Myanmar Times - - News | Views - DEREK TONKIN news­room@mm­times.com

WHILE I sup­port Dr Wakar Ud­din’s warm wel­come for Kofi An­nan’s com­mis­sion (The Myan­mar Times is­sue Septem­ber 21) and es­pe­cially his rec­om­men­da­tion to the com­mis­sion that they should “strate­gi­cally re­view the his­tory of the peo­ple of Rakhine State”, it is an un­for­tu­nate fact that this his­tory is a mat­ter of deep con­tro­versy among schol­ars, what­ever their na­tion­al­ity, eth­nic­ity or re­li­gion. The prospects of har­mon­is­ing these “par­al­lel uni­verses” are re­mote. The best hope is that all par­ties can agree to dis­agree.

There is, how­ever, one fact which is in­dis­putable, but rarely men­tioned. It is that for­mer Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein told vis­it­ing UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UNHCR) An­tónio Guter­res when they met on July 11, 2012, in Nay Pyi Taw that Ben­gali mi­grant labour­ers who set­tled in then-Burma dur­ing Bri­tish rule did so legally and that for this rea­son their grand­chil­dren born in the coun­try are en­ti­tled to Myan­mar cit­i­zen­ship, ac­cord­ing to the “three gen­er­a­tions” rule.

The dif­fi­culty which arose af­ter in­de­pen­dence in 1948 was that tens of thou­sands of Rakhine Mus­lims, who, though they were en­ti­tled to full cit­i­zen­ship – not as indige­nous cit­i­zens au­to­mat­i­cally en­ti­tled by birth, but as longer-term le­gal res­i­dents re­quired to ap­ply – ei­ther failed to make due ap­pli­ca­tion for cit­i­zen­ship or, if they did, saw their ap­pli­ca­tions pi­geon­holed for more than 30 years. Un­der the 1982 Cit­i­zen­ship Law these miss­ing or un­pro­cessed ap­pli­cants for full cit­i­zen­ship were re­gret­tably of­fered in­stead only “as­so­ci­ate” cit­i­zen­ship with as yet un­de­fined, but re­stricted, rights. But even then un­der the “three gen­er­a­tions” rule they were as­sured by Gen­eral Ne Win him­self that their grand­chil­dren would be granted full cit­i­zen­ship, re­gard­less of their eth­nic­ity.

It is also im­por­tant to note that, al­though the term “Ro­hingya” was very in­fre­quently used by lo­cal and na­tional au­thor­i­ties in the 1950s and 1960s, it is not to be found in any leg­isla­tive act, in­clud­ing laws, de­crees or del­e­gated leg­is­la­tion re­lat­ing to cit­i­zen­ship or the hold­ing of a cen­sus. Thus while the list of 144 na­tional races es­tab­lished by law for the 1973 cen­sus in­cluded such Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties deemed indige­nous as ArakanChit­tag­o­nian, Burmese Mus­lim and “other In­dian races”, that list did not in­clude “Ro­hingya”. The same is true of the le­gal po­si­tion un­der Bri­tish rule when the des­ig­na­tion “Ro­hingya” was to­tally un­known.

It should fi­nally be re­called that, dur­ing his meet­ing with the UNHCR, the for­mer pres­i­dent made it clear that he de­fined “Ro­hingya” as il­le­gal mi­grants who came from Ben­gal to then-Arakan State af­ter in­de­pen­dence in 1948. The term “Ro­hingya” was held by the pres­i­dent to have come from Pak­istan/Bangladesh. How­ever, the des­ig­na­tion is now pre­ferred by many Rakhine Mus­lim res­i­dents legally set­tled in Myan­mar. They had in­tended to have it in­scribed at the 2014 cen­sus as their cho­sen eth­nic­ity, even though it was not for­mally listed among the re­vised list of 135 na­tional races first pub­lished in Septem­ber 1990 in Lok­tha Py­ihu Neizin, but that choice was taken away from them prior to the cen­sus.

In their de­lib­er­a­tions, the com­mis­sion will surely ex­er­cise great cau­tion when seek­ing to es­tab­lish the his­tor­i­cal facts. They may well find that the ex­ist­ing “par­al­lel uni­verses” re­main ir­rec­on­cil­ably op­posed. But this should not de­ter the com­mis­sion from their im­por­tant task.

Derek Tonkin is a re­tired Bri­tish diplo­mat and au­thor of a chap­ter, “Ex­plor­ing the is­sue of cit­i­zen­ship in Rakhine State”, in a com­pen­dium to be pub­lished shortly by Chi­ang Mai Univer­sity Press.

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