Rohingyas born in Burma are eligible to apply for citizenship if at least two generations of their families have lived in the country, Immigration Minister Khin Ye said Wednesday, following criticism from international rights groups over the government’s discrimination of the minority group.
He said that those who met these requirements “have the right” to apply for citizenship in Burma, where many of them have lived in Rakhine state along the Bangladesh border for generations.
The Rohingya are regarded in Burma as immigrants from Bangladesh and referred to as “Bengalis” even though they have long lived in the country. The U.N. regards them as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
“Foreigners, like the Bengalis, have the right to apply for citizenship if they want to,” Khin Ye told RFA’s Burmese service, citing an amendment to the country’s constitution in 1982 during the rule of the former military regime.
“The requirements are that their grandparents and parents must have lived here and died here, that the applicant was born here and can speak the Burmese language, and that he or she wants to live here, among other things,” he said.
He maintained that the Rohingya, which he referred to as Bengalis from neighboring Bangladesh, were first brought to Burma as laborers during British occupation from 1824 until the nation gained its independence in 1948.
Khin Ye, speaking in an interview from the capital Naypyidaw, also explained why the government does not treat the Rohingya as an ethnic group in Burma.
He said that during the colonial era, Burmese “had no right to protect and manage our country,” meaning that the Rohingyas were never invited to stay by the country’s citizens.
“So unless they are blood-related with our people, there is no way they [can be automatically considered] our citizens,” he said.
Violence erupted between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine communities in Rakhine state last June, killing more than 80 people and leaving tens of thousands displaced.
The clashes sparked international allegations of human rights violations against the Rohingya. Because the Rohingya are regarded as immigrants, the majority of them lack access to the social services provided to Burmese citizens and are often unable to find work to support themselves and their families.
Khin Ye said that some of the Rohingyas “have become citizens according to the law,” but said that most Burmese frequently assume that they have obtained their documentation through corrupt immigration officials.
This was understandable as it was difficult for Rohingyas to become citizens based on the fact that the minority is not officially recognized as one of the more than 100 ethnic groups of Burma. The country’s last two official censuses in 1973 and 1983 also did not list them amongst the population.
But he said he agreed with the international community that more must be done to address the root causes of the ethnic violence that shattered Rakhine state in June.
“When I met with international organizations and with the U.S. Ambassador yesterday, we never disagreed on the Rohingya issue,” he said.
“Mostly we discussed how to avoid this kind of conflict in the future and what needs to be done.”
He dismissed claims that one of the reasons for the violence was that corrupt immigration officials had been letting more members of the group into Burma from Bangladesh illegally, angering the Rakhine population.
“I heard the accusation that corruption in immigration at the western border was one of the reasons for the conflict. [That claim] needs evidence and proof,” he said.
“I would say the reason the Bengali population has increased is based on historical events, rather than the corruption of the immigration and border control.”
‘High birth rate’
Khin Ye said that the government is working on a “short- and long-term plan,” which includes a “workshop with international experts,” for dealing with what he said were “high birth rates” among Rohingyas in Rakhine state.
“My individual opinion on this issue of high birth rates is that it is due to a lack of education and exposure to the community outside [the minority group],” he said.
“We may have to create job opportunities so that [the Rohingya] don't spend their time in the ‘child-bearing business,” he said, in a clear indication of the government’s frustration over the rising Rohingya population.
The U.N. says some 800,000 Rohingyas live in Burma.
Khin Ye’s statement came as Burmese President Thein Sein dispatched a 25-member independent commission to investigate the circumstances of the Rakhine state violence and as a delegation from the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) visited the scene of the clashes.
The U.S. Embassy in Burma on Monday stressed in a statement the need for a long-term solution to ethnic strife in the area, listing as key challenges security and stability, freedom of movement and protection for local residents, and humanitarian access.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.