Since the creation of Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya have been excluded from the country’s list of “indigenous” ethnic groups.
The rationale for this move was that the Rohingya were not a “natural,” “indigenous” ethnic group in their native northern Rakhine state, but rather that they were imported to the region under British imperial administration in the 1800s.
That is both false and irrelevant. If you do not “naturally” belong where you are born – and in the case of the Rohingya, often where their grandparents and great-grandparents were born – then where on Earth do you belong?
This is also why international law makes it illegal for any state to deny citizenship to any individual born on their territory if doing so would render that individual stateless.
Yet that is exactly what the Myanmar state has done to more than 2 million individuals, based on a false vision of ethno-nationalist history.
This week’s publication of the “Tools of Genocide” report by human rights group Fortify Rights made it clear that the only demand of the Rohingya people is that Myanmar meets its obligation under international law and recognizes them as full citizens, equal in status before the law to any other Myanmarese born in the same country.
But the Myanmar authorities have set as a precondition that the Rohingya accept the National Verification Card (NVC) identity scheme that categorizes them as foreigners. It is therefore no surprise that the Rohingya themselves refer to the NVCs as “genocide cards.” But the most surprising aspect is that the UN believes the cards are a positive step forward.
The problem is that the UN is assuming that the Myanmar authorities are making this “interim” offer in good faith. It is assuming this in the face of overwhelming evidence: Persecution of the few Rohingya who remain in Myanmar is ongoing even as we speak.
And crucially, there has been no shift in attitudes toward the Rohingya or the crisis by anyone in the Myanmar state, whether in its military branch, or its civilian side. Conversely, the very same authorities have a long history of using the documentation of individuals to target, exclude and persecute defined groups.
Any reasonable observer should conclude that the interim status provided by the proposed NVCs is a trap in just the exact same way in which the “white cards” issued by the military juntas of the past were a trap.
They are not meant to grant an interim status and will not get anyone any closer to full citizenship. Rather, they are a useful tool of population accounting, which can be used for further targeting of Rohingya individuals for exclusion and arbitrary state force.
But the clincher is that there is no sense in which any such interim step is necessary in practice. If Myanmar had any intention of normalizing the status of the Rohingya as full citizens of the state, the very same process through which they would decide who is entitled to an NVC could be used to grant full citizenship.
“If the Myanmar authorities wish to carry out some kind of due process of verification, then so be it, but they must do so in the camps in Bangladesh where the Rohingya are protected and where any such process can happen in the full view of the international community.” –Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Or are the Myanmar authorities suggesting that there are brown, Muslim Bangladeshi nationals queuing up in refugee camps to fraudulently claim citizenship in a Buddhist- Myanmarese ethnic and religious supremacist state, so that they can claim land in an area poorer than Bangladesh and devastated by war in northern Rakhine state?
Given the dangers of putting this kind of information in the hands of a genocidal state, and the ease of offering real citizenship, the Rohingya and their advocates should accept nothing less than full citizenship and equal protection under the law.
If the Myanmar authorities wish to carry out some kind of due process of verification, then so be it, but they must do so in the camps in Bangladesh where the Rohingya are protected and where any such process can happen in the full view of the international community. For their part, the Rohingya ask just that, and little more.
In the final analysis, all of us (except for the perpetrators of the genocide in Myanmar, of course) want the Rohingya to be able to return home. But it would be a dereliction of duty for any UN agency or official to encourage any Rohingya individual to return to Myanmar until such time that the Myanmar authorities fully recognize their moral and legal rights, and until such time as the international community and the UN itself can be satisfied that those rights will be protected upon return.
The proposed NVCs are not “a step in the right direction.” They are a well-trodden path to further targeting and abuse in the future. UN officials really must learn from history and reject that future for the Rohingya.
This article originally appeared in ArabNews on September 5th 2019.