Treating the Rohingya like they belong in Myanmar

As the military struggles to stamp out opposition on the streets and in the mountains, there is almost no good news coming out of Myanmar right now.

Yet, in early June, the National Unity Government (NUG)-in-hiding released a ‘Policy position on the Rohingya in Rakhine State’ that overturned decades of consensus on the Muslim ethnic minority. Among Buddhist democrats and dictators alike, there was a long-held agreement to exclude the Rohingya from citizenship and the standard repertoire of belonging.

In an intriguing set of suggestions, the policy statement indicates some significant shifts for policy orthodoxy in Myanmar.

Throughout the three-page document, the NUG refers to the ethnic community as ‘Rohingya’, the minority’s preferred terminology. The ethnonym may initially appear of little consequence. Yet successive governments have refused to use the term ‘Rohingya’ and often used the word ‘Bengali’ to imply foreign interlopers, part of a process of erasing Rohingya history and identity.

The NUG commits to repealing the basis of the military-authored 1982 citizenship law, which established indigenous ‘national races’ in Myanmar that excluded the Rohingya, and pledges to replace it with a new citizenship act that ‘base[s] citizenship on birth in Myanmar or birth anywhere as a child of Myanmar citizens’.

Like others, we have been arguing for some time for the technical separation of ethnicity from eligibility for citizenship in Myanmar. The NUG’s move would make that change and bring Myanmar into line with many democracies, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, that provide a pathway to citizenship for anyone born in the country.

The NUG also wants to abolish the national verification cards that have essentially categorised Rohingya as foreigners and disallowed their chances of citizenship.

The policy reforms promise repatriation of Rohingya from neighbouring countries, predominantly Bangladesh, where over a million Rohingya refugees languish in camps. The offer of repatriation has been heard before, but without the promise of citizenship and annulment of the 1982 law, those proposals were hollow.

The NUG says it will grant the International Criminal Court, and therefore presumably the International Court of Justice, jurisdiction for crimes committed in Myanmar against Rohingya and other communities.

Such planned access reverses the National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s ban on investigators from the International Criminal Court and nullifies Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence of the military against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in November 2019.

So, why has the NUG taken these significant steps, and what does this mean for the prospects of justice for the Rohingya?

After the military coup in February 2021 deposed the elected NLD-led government, which was returned to power in a landslide in November last year, the NUG was formed by ex-members of the government and representatives of some ethnic minority parties.

It is an impressively broad grouping that draws its strength from a multi-ethnic coalition spearheaded by NLD officials who survived efforts to round up key leaders during the coup.

After the coup, the NUG is seen by many in Myanmar and internationally as the country’s legitimate government. In May, the Asian Network for Free Elections published a report that reinforced the findings in earlier reports by international election observers: ‘the results of the 2020 general elections were, by and large, representative of the will of the people of Myanmar.’

The NUG has been under international pressure to treat the Rohingya better. The US Congress, for example, has said it will withhold some resources until that happens. The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in 2017 took place under the watch of the NLD-led government, even though it had no ability to constrain any military operations. Nevertheless, the NLD government provided electoral legitimacy to the military’s violent campaign, including in front of the International Court of Justice.

In addition, despite having the legislative capacity to overturn the 1982 citizenship law, the NLD continued to use it to marginalise and deny citizenship to various groups, most notably the Rohingya.

For NLD strategists, the judgement, crudely, was mathematical: the risk that compassion for the Rohingya could be used to end the NLD’s dominance at the ballot box across Bamar, Buddhist townships in central Myanmar. Moreover, they always worried that the military sought any means to portray NLD policy as disloyal, even treacherous. This year’s coup showed that the fears of military intervention were not a fantasy.

With the coup, the NUG now needs to deal with a new reality, where democratic and ethnic forces are on the back foot. Embracing the Rohingya is a late adjustment to what were well-entrenched policies of exclusion. Whether the NUG will ever have the chance to implement this policy is another question.

But it is still a significant set of shifts that can help re-legitimise the claims of federally minded, democratic groups in Myanmar, including the NLD and ethnic armed groups. They have made it clear that they will no longer be able to hide behind policies of ethnic chauvinism to support their populist claims.

Notably, the NUG was formed, and developed this policy position, without Suu Kyi. She has been held under arrest and incommunicado since the coup. At 75 and now on trial for a range of politically motivated charges, she is unlikely to again be the significant political force that she was in the past.

The treatment of the Rohingya diminished Suu Kyi’s international standing, and was a key factor in the muted enthusiasm, internationally, that greeted her 2020 re-election. But, in her absence, the courage of anti-government protestors on the streets is now being matched by explicit statements of intent to change Myanmar’s appalling treatment of ethnic minorities, especially the Rohingya.

These overdue shifts are a small glimmer of positive news at a time when Myanmar’s political deterioration is destroying too many lives. The prospect of the Rohingya, one day, finding a comfortable space in a future democratic federal union is a reason to keep listening to the NUG as it struggles to define a plan that begins to right the many wrongs against Myanmar’s minorities.