Why the National Unity Government’s Statement on Myanmar’s Rohingya Is Important

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Why the National Unity Government’s Statement on Myanmar’s Rohingya Is Important

The shadow government’s formal pledges to offer a persecuted minority justice and rights could help shape Myanmar’s future.

Why the National Unity Government’s Statement on Myanmar’s Rohingya Is Important

A woman is seen at the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, March 6, 2018 .

Credit: UN Women/Allison Joyce

On June 3, Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) – a shadow government formed by civilian lawmakers deposed by the military in its 1 February coup – released a historic position paper on the country’s Rohingya community. The three-page document formally lays down a set of pledges and positions that mark a clear break from the past in the relationship between the Myanmar state and the stateless Rohingya Muslim community.

Welcomed by many as a progressive declaration, it sets out with the premise that “everyone in the Union has full enjoyment of fundamental human rights” and that the NUG will “not tolerate any form of discrimination.” It asserts that “all ethnic groups who are native to the Union have full enjoyment of individual rights held by individual people and collective rights held by ethnic groups.”

Although the language is somewhat non-specific, this implies an intent to classify the Rohingya as a legitimate ethnic group of Myanmar and include it in the list of “national races” (taingyintha). Currently, there are 135 officially-recognized “national races,” and including the Rohingya among their number would mean granting them full citizenship rights and making them full members of Myanmar’s national community.

However, there is an acute lack of clarity on whether the shadow government really seeks to recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group. In a press conference on June 5, the NUG’s Minister of Human Rights Aung Myo Min clarified that this point would be “discussed later.”

The June 3 statement then acknowledges the “violence and gross human rights violations inflicted upon Rohingya by the thuggish military,” including the forced displacement of “hundreds of thousands” of Rohingya from Rakhine State. It expresses sadness over these events and notes that “the entire people of Burma is sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya.” Notably, it guarantees “justice and reparation” for the community.

These are crucial promises that significantly depart from the Myanmar state’s persistent denial of the serious human rights abuses that the Rohingya community in northern Rakhine State has faced at the hands of the military for decades, but especially in the period between October 2016 and August-September 2017. They signal a fundamental shift in how mainstream Myanmar political figures in the former civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) view the Rohingya issue.

In fact, the very usage of the term “Rohingya,” which NLD leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, had vehemently avoided until just a few months back, and the vocabulary of “justice and reparation” mark a landmark departure from the older way of doing things.

However, the statement stops short of using the word “genocidal” for the military’s violent campaigns against the Rohingya, which is how the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar had characterized them in its damning September 2018 report. Prominent Rohingya activists, such as Tun Khin of Burma Rohingya Organization UK, have further pointed out how the NUG steered clear of the term “ethnic cleansing,” used by the U.N. human rights chief in 2017.

It is clear that the civilian lawmakers are treading on the issue with caution, perhaps wary of backlash from their ethnic Bamar constituencies for using what may be perceived as provocative or hyperbolic terms. Moreover, the question of whether Myanmar actually committed “genocide” against the Rohingya, in strict legal terms, remains subjudice at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where The Gambia has accused it of violating the Genocide Convention of 1948.

The statement, however, promises to “initiate processes to grant International Criminal Court [ICC] jurisdiction over crimes committed within Myanmar against the Rohingya and other communities.” This is important because it is precisely because of territorial jurisdiction issues, arising from the fact that Myanmar is not a party to the Rome Statute that created the court, that the ICC prosecution team had to confine itself to the limited crime of forced deportation through neighboring Bangladesh, as I explained in an earlier article.

If the NUG manages to return to power as the “legitimate” or widely-recognized government of Myanmar in the near future, it may accept the Court’s jurisdiction by virtue of the Statute’s Article 12(3). This would instantly expand the scope of ICC’s investigation of those who commissioned and committed war crimes against the Rohingya. But, the June 3 statement fails to mention the ICJ case. The NUG addressed it in a separate statement published on 30 May, in which it promised to cooperate with the Court – yet another remarkable stride towards ensuring justice for the Rohingya.

Next, the NUG’s position statement asserts that the 88 recommendations outlined in the 2017 final report of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State (ACRS) “must play a crucial role in addressing the affairs in Rakhine State.” This, in itself, is not a significant departure from the deposed NLD government’s position. After all, it was Aung San Suu Kyi herself who had invited Annan just a month after she took office to study the situation in Rakhine State and come up with policy recommendations. Unsurprisingly, the military and its proxy political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), opposed the Commission.

Interestingly, the position statement, right after recognizing the importance of the ACRS recommendations, goes on to say the following: “[O]ver the past four years, much has changed to make the situation worse in Rakhine State for all ethnic groups there. Using these recommendations as well as other relevant recommendations as inputs, we earnestly believe that we can work together with all the people in Rakhine State.”

It is unclear what the NUG is referring to when talking about the “past four years.” One can assume that it refers to the rising tension between the ethnic Rakhine community and the (now-deposed) NLD government over the former’s belief that the Bamar-dominated administration in Naypyidaw was bulldozing its ethnonationalist aspirations. The intense armed conflict between the Arakan Army (AA) and the military that began to escalate in 2018 and is currently in ceasefire mode further animated this longstanding tension. More importantly, the Rakhine civil society and political leadership both strongly opposed the ACRS.

Thus, by not solely basing its Rakhine policy on the ACRS report and constantly emphasizing “all ethnic groups,” the NUG wants to avoid alienating the Rakhine civil-political fraternity. This is also possibly why it continues to dither on the point of recognizing the Rohingya as an ethnic group – a move that could possibly anger the Rakhine Buddhists, which continue to have a tense relationship with the Rohingya Muslims. Unsurprisingly, on June 6, the All Arakanese Solidarity Committee – a body of Rakhine politicians – released a formal statement opposing the NUG’s statement on the Rohingya.

The NUG knows that it is walking on eggshells in Rakhine State, which remains somewhat firewalled from the nationwide anti-coup movement. After the February 1 coup, the new military regime attempted to appease the Rakhine leadership by giving amnesty to a prominent ethnic leader as well as family members of AA leaders jailed by the NLD, removing the AA from its list of “terrorist organizations,” and framing Aung San Suu Kyi’s government as an adversary of the Rakhine people. Besides, the AA, while promising to treat the Rohingya with “due dignity,” has made it clear that it won’t encourage anti-coup protests in the state as it is fighting its own battle against the military.

In a similar vein, the statement invites “all stakeholders in Rakhine State,” which logically includes the Rohingya, to join the process of drafting a new constitution. This is important because it opens a pathway for the stateless community to directly participate in the shaping of a new collective future for Myanmar. Replacing the current military-drafted 2008 constitution, through which the generals justified their latest takeover, has been a key priority for civilian lawmakers since the NLD government took office in 2016.

The statement then goes on to tackle the sensitive question of Rohingya citizenship head-on. It talks about “repealing, amending, and promulgating laws, including the 1982 Citizenship Law” in order to resolve the “conflict in Rakhine State” and notes that the new citizenship law must be based on “birth in Myanmar or birth anywhere as a child of Myanmar citizens.”

The 1982 Citizenship Law is central to the dire Rohingya condition. It is precisely because of this military-drafted legislation that the community has dropped out of citizenship registries and has been unable to find its way back. Repealing it would ease the Rohingya toward full citizenship once again, effectively ending their statelessness and entitling them to a broad spectrum of political, social, economic and cultural rights. Even the Annan-led ACRS report recommended a review of the law so as to enable “individuals who have lost their citizenship or had their citizenship revoked to reacquire it.” But, in the  June 5 presser, the NUG human rights minister stated that the 1982 law will be reviewed only after a new constitution is drafted. This could delay the reversal of the exclusionary legislation.

Yet, the NUG basing a new citizenship law on “birth in Myanmar” would mean putting in place a jus soli citizenship regime. Doing so would be no less than extraordinary: it would not just replace the restrictive nationality framework currently in place, but also distinguish Myanmar as the only country in the broader South, East and Southeast Asian region aside from Pakistan to have a birthright citizenship system. It remains to be seen if this promise is implemented verbatim or with riders.

The position statement, very importantly, commits to abolishing the xenophobic National Verification Cards (NVC) process, which has so far been used by the Myanmar state to label the Rohingya community as “Bengali immigrants” and coerce them into accepting a state of “midway citizenship.” In fact, as the ACRS report highlights, the Rohingya Muslims have largely rejected the exclusionary NVC process out of fears that they would remain forever unlettered by submitting to it. Thus, by getting rid of the NVC regime, the NUG would clear yet another of the hurdles standing between the Rohingya and full citizenship.

Finally, the statement notes the importance of “voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation” of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State and reaffirms the bilateral agreement signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh on this question in November 2017. What is noteworthy is that the statement commits to repatriation only when it is done voluntarily, safely, and with dignity. This is crucial because it aims to fix the haste with which Myanmar, Bangladesh, and some other regional partners have tried to rush through the return process without ensuring that the three internationally recognized pillars of sustainable repatriation are followed.

In fact, the statement’s emphasis on these flows smoothly from its earlier pledges to provide ethno-political rights to the Rohingya, including Myanmar citizenship. For the Rohingya refugees, these will serve as effective guarantees for their return and possibly ease their apprehensions about going back to what many perceive as hostile territory. However, the statement does not address the sociopolitical threat that the Rohingya Muslims continue to face in Rakhine State from influential Rakhine Buddhist civil-political figures. It also doesn’t get into the armed conflict between the AA and the military, which could affect the repatriation process.

With all its flaws, the June 3 statement represents a landmark step toward resolving the Rohingya crisis at its root. Besides addressing concerns that the Rohingya have been putting forth for years now, it directly tackles some of the complaints that the international community, particularly the West, has made over the NUG’s apparent silence over the issue. This will make it easier for the grouping to gain wider recognition. But to ensure a genuine representation of views, the NUG needs to urgently bring a Rohingya representative on board, at least in an advisory capacity.

While the document is a just string of words for now, formal pledges to provide justice and restore the lost rights of a persecuted minority community matter greatly in a majoritarian national context where mainstream Myanmar political figures didn’t even want to utter the word “Rohingya” until a few months back. Most importantly, by laying down their positions in a formal document, the NUG leaders have opened themselves up to a certain degree of scrutiny and have set political yardsticks that will be hard to dodge later.

One may even argue that this statement and other similar pronouncements foreshadow a future in Myanmar’s politics where even Aung San Suu Kyi will have to recalibrate her own positions to fit in. This, perhaps, is where the true essence of Myanmar’s radical political transformation lies.