Rohingya Muslims’ statelessness is at the heart of bloody unrest that has torn through western Myanmar, but experts say the regime is unlikely to risk public ire by lifting them from citizenship limbo.
Rakhine state remains explosively tense after being convulsed by two major outbreaks of fighting involving Buddhist and Muslim communities since June that have left 180 dead and more than 110,000, mainly Rohingya, crammed into makeshift camps.
Local authorities told reporters on Wednesday they have begun a process of verifying the nationality of all the state’s Muslims, amid widespread calls for those deemed “illegal” to be sent to a third country.
The precise goal of the survey was unclear.
With some 800,000 stateless Rohingya in Rakhine, the reformist government is under pressure to give them a legal status as it comes under international scrutiny with warnings that the conflict threatens its democratic transition.
“We would like the problems, the unresolved problems of the status of the Rohingya people, to be addressed by the leaders in Burma across politics,” said Britain’s Foreign Minister William Hague on Monday, using Myanmar’s former name.
The Rohingya, considered by the United Nations to be one of the most persecuted minorities on the planet, are seen by the government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Observers said the extreme level of hostility against the Rohingya in mainstream public opinion is likely to further inhibit any government efforts at widespread naturalisation, particularly as the country prepares for 2015 elections.
“The government could face a popular backlash if they unilaterally granted citizenship to the Rohingya,” said Myanmar expert Nicholas Farelly at Australian National University.
“It would be a tragedy if the Rohingya issue was inflamed by the need for politicians to shore up support before 2015.
“Time and patience may salve these wounds,” said Farelly, adding that “an audacious and inclusive effort could work, but given the risks, I find it hard to believe the current government could tilt that way.”
The opposition, led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi, has also disappointed international supporters by failing to speak up on behalf of the Rohingya, with many suggesting suspected concerns over the polls.
Nobel laureate Suu Kyi has simply repeated calls for an end to the violence, in defiance of criticism from human rights groups.
The Rohingya were deprived of nationality by the junta, which held Myanmar in an iron grip for half a century until March last year and the new regime refuses even to accept there is a group called “Rohingya”, habitually referring to them as the “so-called Rohingya”.
Other terms are laced with xenophobia, with widespread public references to the group as “Bengalis” or even the pejorative term for foreigner, “kalar”.
A 1982 law enshrines the citizenship of Myanmar’s officially-recognised ethnic groups.
But the Rohingya were excluded, despite their claims to have met the criteria of having ancestors in the country before 1823, the date of the first Anglo-Burmese war and a benchmark before a colonial relationship that saw a flood of new arrivals into the country from south Asia.
“We have no plan to accept as an ethnic group those who are stateless, or any new tribes who are not officially recognised, like the Rohingya,” Myanmar president’s office director Zaw Htay told reporters.
Rohingya were recognised under that name during the country’s brief period of democratic rule after colonialism, from 1948 to 1962, according to Maung Zarni, visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.
Denying their status “is nothing less than an attempted ethnocide, that is, the attempt to kill a group’s cultural identity,” he told reporters.
Without recognition as an ethnic minority, Rohingya could apply to become “naturalised citizens” – a status that carries fewer rights than full citizenship – if they can prove their ancestors were in the country before independence in 1948.
But Zarni said Myanmar would “deny a large percentage of them citizenship status”, because “they have been deprived of documentations for decades” so few would be able to provide supporting paperwork.
As a compromise, the government could opt to issue the Rohingya with white identity cards, said Zaw Htay. But the cards are temporary documents, allowing them to stay in Myanmar but not conferring citizenship rights.
The strength of feeling surrounding the Rohingya has already derailed efforts to update the citizenship law.
A proposal from a member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) for parliament to consider reworking the legislation was immediately rejected despite not being motivated by a concern for the stateless group.
“It is not the time to do it yet,” said another USDP MP, Mann Kan Nyunt, after the decision, adding that any attempt to redraft “sensitive” parts of the law could cause “doubt and misunderstanding”.