The UN has called the atrocities committed in Rakhine State, Burma (Myanmar) “textbook ethnic cleansing.” It has since been responsible for the deaths of over 2,000 people and sent approximately 600,000 people fleeing for their lives to the neighboring country of Bangladesh.
The country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has recently spoken toward efforts in repatriating the Rohingya that have fled. It has come after an initial silence on her part, followed by claims that she does not even consider them citizens of Burma in the first place. Now she is offering repatriation, under two conditions: that they prove their residency by official documentation, and that the documentation coincides with the “1982 Citizenship Law.”
Let’s start with the law: the 1982 Citizenship Law has historically denied the Rohingya citizenship in the first place. Because of this law, they have often been called “resident foreigners” by the Burmese government. The law essentially grants the people of Burma citizenship in one of three categories–which are largely irrelevant, as the Rohingya are in none of these categories. The UN has repeatedly urged the Burmese government to reconsider the 1982 Citizenship Law. It’s difficult to imagine how the Rohingya crisis could be solved by a law that does not cover the Rohingya.
And even if the law did cover the Rohingya, there are plenty of other issues to deal with:
Growing up in the jungle, living off the land and having little contact with the government is a very regular way of life in rural Burma. Some places take days of walking just to get to, weaving through a dense jungle and crossing vast swathes of nature just to find a tiny village nestled in the mountains. They farm, hunt or participate in village life day in and day out, unaware and generally unconcerned about the happenings of the outside world. Many of these people aren’t realistically getting easy access to government officials and their programs to document Burmese citizens, and until now they had no reason to do so.
On top of that, even if they happened to have all of their relevant paperwork, many of these people have been running with their lives. The Burmese government hasn’t exactly been on purely peaceful terms with the Rohingya up to the beginning of this conflict–there was intense internal fighting in 2012, yet another genocidal effort by the government in 2015, and now this. To expect this same government to be instituting programs that enable the Rohingya to get their equivalent to a driver’s license or some other kind of national identification–it’s unlikely, to say the least.
And even further still: because of all these issues, it is certainly possible that some Rohingya will not want to return to Burma at all. This hasn’t been the first effort to violently persecute the Rohingya, and it seems doubtful that it will be the last. There were over 400,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh before this wave of aggression began, and it is likely that many will stay just as they did. In their own country they faced, rape, murder and the destruction of their property–they are going to have to ask themselves if they really want to go back to a government that does these things to them.
Of course, taking people into your country without any sort of documentation is a huge risk. It opens up a pathway for illicit activities and criminal enterprises, and the opportunity almost always gets taken advantage of. But the reality is that many of these people have been driven by the Burmese military to the Burma/Bangladesh border and now may not be able to return if they forgot to grab their identification (if they had it in the first place).
It seems unlikely that Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration are completely unaware of these issues, and the world is watching to see how they can accommodate those with and without documentation. As it stands, it does not seem as if these proposed solutions are realistic solutions at all.
Featured image from AP Images/Bernat Armangue – a weary child rests in his mother’s arms after reaching a Bangladeshi refugee camp by foot.
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