Rohingya refugees walk back to their makeshift homes at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh after collecting relief supplies on October 15. (AFP)

Military involvement in politics is the real barrier to Rohingya citizenship

Only when the Tatmadaw is brought under civilian control can the government address Rohingya citizenship claims. Until then, international pressure tactics won’t help.


It has been more than three years since some 740,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from Tatmadaw “clearance operations”, launched in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on security outposts in northern Rakhine State.

Although Myanmar and Bangladesh have negotiated many times over the return of the Rohingya, not a single person has officially returned. Meanwhile, Myanmar is defending itself at the International Court of Justice in The Hague against accusations by The Gambia that it has committed genocide against the Rohingya.

The Bangladesh foreign minister, Dr A.K. Abdul Momen, told European diplomats in Dhaka recently that the international community should put intense pressure on Myanmar to enable the Rohingya to return safely and with dignity.

In Myanmar, the National League for Democracy government was returned to office after another landslide election victory on November 8. Resolving the Rohingya problem will continue to be a responsibility of that government under its new term, but a key question is whether the approach taken by Rohingya activists and the international community is the right onet.

In their responses to the Rohingya exodus, they are seeking change by putting coercive pressure on the Tatmadaw, pushing to have military leaders sanctioned and charged with genocide or crimes against humanity. They also accuse the civilian government of condoning war crimes, making them too potential targets of international legal action.

The Rohingya in the camps in Bangladesh and their international activist supporters are demanding that they must be recognised as citizens of Myanmar, with their safety and human rights guaranteed, and that they not be confined to Rakhine State but be free to travel throughout the country like any other citizen. Unless these demands are met, the Rohingya will not return to Myanmar. However, in the three years since the latest Rohingya exodus, there has been no indication from the Myanmar government that it will relax its attitude, despite international pressure. A solution to the crisis seems as remote as ever..

If genuine progress is to be made, the NLD government’s position needs to be better understood by the international community. As soon as it took office in 2016, the NLD government began to address the problem.  At the behest of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the government that September appointed an advisory commission on Rakhine State chaired by former United Nations secretary general Mr Kofi Annan, and tasked it with recommending solutions to the complex social and economic challenges confronting the troubled western state.

The Annan commission’s final report, which was broadly accepted by the international community, proposed 88 recommendations that it urged the government to implement. It was handed down only hours before the ARSA attacks that triggered the clearance operations. (ARSA had conducted its first attacks on police posts in the area the previous October.)

In implementing the proposals of the Annan report, the government’s biggest challenge has been the recommendation to review the 1982 Citizenship Law. “The manner in which the law has been applied over the past decades has not done justice to the credible claims of communities who have been living in the country for generations,” the report says.

However, helping resolve the Rohingya crisis by revising  how the 1982 law is “applied” poses a key problem. The law as written recognises as citizens any member of an ethnic community that was already living in the country in 1824, the year the first Anglo-Burmese colonial war began. But according to the government, Rakhine’s “Bengali” community (as the Rohingya are officially termed) was not present before 1824. Because of this, they have no automatic right to citizenship and must instead prove ancestry in Myanmar stretching back three generations, which most Rohingya struggle to provide documentary evidence for even if their families have deep roots in the country. As non-citizens, they don’t have the right to travel freely in the country and their human rights are violated. Reviewing how the law is applied will be unlikely to change this.

In light of this, many have asked why the NLD government has yet to even begin reviewing the law itself, a plan for which the Annan report suggested the government should present “within a reasonable timeline”.  The answer lies in the bifurcation of executive power in the country; the Tatmadaw acts independently of the government and retains crucial leverage.

The NLD government is simultaneously trying to achieve national development, implement the peace process and solve the Rohingya refugee crisis, but it has to move cautiously to avoid another military takeover.

In 1962, after the elected government of Prime Minister U Nu held talks with ethnic leaders to discuss the creation of a federal union, the Tatmadaw, led by General Ne Win, seized power in a coup d’etat. It then launched a propaganda campaign that justified the takeover on the grounds that it was saving the country from disintegration. This is not ancient history, but is still fresh in many people’s minds.

The NLD has more than enough seats in the Union parliament to amend or abolish any law, including the citizenship law. However, the NLD is hesitant to act because the Tatmadaw continually espouses the importance of the three “national causes”: non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity, and perpetuation of sovereignty. The elected government is being constantly monitored by the same institution that used the false argument that the country was on the brink of disintegration to justify its seizure of power in 1962.

If the NLD announces that it intends to amend or abolish the 1982 Citizenship Law to solve the Rohingya problem, which it inherited, it may risk the overthrow of Myanmar’s nascent democracy. Such a fate would be bad for Myanmar’s people generally and the Rohingya particularly, and it certainly would not be what the international community wants.

Reform to the 1982 Citizenship Law is therefore unlikely until the 2008 Constitution is amended and the Tatmadaw is brought under the government’s control. Only when we can be sure that our democracy is strong, durable and lasting can the citizenship problem be addressed. This is why the international community needs to be patient while democracy is strengthened in Myanmar. It should be careful to avoid any moves that might weaken the civilian government.

In the meantime, the return of the Rohingya will require understanding and cooperation between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Assistance from partner countries will also be essential to ensure that the safety, dignity and human rights of the Rohingya are guaranteed in the process.

These are the steps needed for any real resolution to the Rohingya crisis.

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