Myanmar will only consider providing citizenship to Muslim Rohingyas who meet certain “legal requirements” the government said Friday in response to a call from U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to address the grievances of the stateless ethnic minority.
Myanmar’s deputy minister Ye Htut said that the Rohingyas, who rights groups say bore the brunt of two waves of deadly communal violence that rocked Rakhine state last year, would be granted citizenship based on the country’s decades-old citizenship law.
Around 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas live in Rakhine state but most of them, according to rights groups, have been denied citizenship as they are considered by most in Myanmar and the government to be illegal immigrants.
Most people in Myanmar call the Rohingyas “Bengali,” indicating that they have illegally immigrated from neighboring Bangladesh.
“Any Bengali Muslim living in Rakhine state who meets legal requirements according to the 1982 citizenship law will be granted citizenship,” Ye Htut told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Officials have previously said that the citizenship law only recognized as citizens those Rohingyas whose families had settled in the country before independence from Britain in 1948.
Speaking to diplomats at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Wednesday, Ban had expressed concern over the plight of the Rohingyas and called on Myanmar to consider granting the minority group citizenship.
The government should take the “necessary steps to address the legitimate grievances of minority communities, including the citizenship demands of the Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine,” he said.
Violence in June and October last year between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas left around 200 people dead and 140,000 people—mostly Rohingyas—displaced in restive Rakhine state.
Without citizenship, the Rohingyas are denied many basic rights in Myanmar, and the U.N. has referred to the group as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Speaking to RFA, Ye Htut repeated long-held convictions in Myanmar that the Rohingya had settled illegally inside the country from Bangladesh, which borders Rakhine state.
“We have said this many times, that Myanmar has never had a Rohingya ethnicity … there are no documents about them in history or in any census taken since the British era,” Ye Htut said.
“They were mentioned only as Bengalis.”
Ye Htut said that the government was taking a census among Rohingyas in Rakhine state camps for displaced persons to determine whether they were eligible for citizenship, but added that “some disturbances” were making it difficult to do so.
“These matters should be solved first,” he said in an apparent reference to communal violence.
Last month, two Muslims were killed and six injured in fresh violence in Rakhine state after security forces opened fire following a dispute at the Kyeinnipyin camp in Pauktaw township housing some 4,000 people—mostly Rohingyas.
More than 20,000 Rohingyas are estimated to have fled Myanmar by boat since last year’s violence to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human trafficking.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.