The parallel universes facing Kofi Annan’s commission
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.