A Rohingya girl (Steve Gumaer/Flickr).
The government’s action plan for Arakan (Rakhine) State, which was drafted under a shroud of secrecy and which has not been released to the public, was roundly criticised by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday, which warned that it would ”entrench discriminatory policies that deprive Rohingya Muslims in Burma of citizenship and lead to the forced resettlement of over 130,000 displaced Rohingya into closed camps.”
“It is nothing less than a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness that appears designed to strip the Rohingya of hope and force them to flee the country,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said. The draft Rakhine State Action Plan, which has not been released to the public, is intended to be a comprehensive doctrine covering development, humanitarian, security, and ethnic issues in Arakan, including – most controversially – the thorny issue of Rohingya citizenship. Under Burma’s 1982 citizenship law, most were rendered stateless, despite claiming ancestry in the region dating back generations.
A draft of the plan, obtained by DVB, does not specifically state whether the displaced will be allowed to return to where they came from, however a subsection claims that the government will, “to the extent possible, make alternate plans for IDPs who do not want to go back to the places of origins [sic].” The document claims that relocation efforts for “Bengalis” – the government’s preferred term for the Rohingya – will occur in April and May of next year, although it does not specify where they will be relocated to.
But Human Rights Watch warns that the government’s planned solution will result in permanent segregation, entrenching the systemic persecution to which the Rohingya are currently subjected.
“Moving the Rohingya further from urban areas to isolated rural camps will violate their basic rights, make them dependent on outside assistance, and formalize the land grab of Rohingya property,” Robertson said.
A pilot of the citizenship verification programme recently concluded in Myebon Township, through which 40 Rohingyas were reportedly issued “naturalized” citizenship. Under Burma’s stratified citizenship laws, this grants them fewer privileges than those with “full” citizenship rights. According to the draft plan, the government intends to wrap up the citizenship verification process in its entirety by October 2016.
Rohingyas that desire naturalized status will have to officially repudiate their claim to Rohingya identity, and will be forced to register as “Bengalis,” a term they find derogatory. According to the draft plan, people “who reject definition in the existing laws” will be ineligible for citizenship, because the term “Rohingya” does not appear on a list of 135 officially-recognised “national races.”
For those that refuse to give up their ethnic identity or who are otherwise deemed ineligible for citizenship, the plan claims they “will be handled according to Myanmar Laws and Procedures” adding, ominously, “that sheltering illegal immigrants is a chargeable offense under applicable laws.”
The plan calls for the construction of “temporary camps in required numbers for those who refuse to be registered and those without adequate documents,” which Human Rights Watch claims “amounts to arbitrary, indefinite detention with the possibility of deportation.”
The government appears ready to approach the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for assistance with resettling Rohingyas denied citizenship to third countries, which it claims it is within its rights to do “on the basis that Myanmar as a sovereign state has its own immigration laws,” adding that “Myanmar is granting appropriate documentation only to those who qualified according to its Citizenship Law.”
But, as the UN’s Special Rapporteur to Burma, Yanghee Lee, pointed out in a July speech, Burma’s 1982 citizenship law is “not in line with international standards.” A UNHCR spokesperson told DVB earlier this week that the government has not as yet made a formal request to the agency’s offices in Yangon for assistance, but if a request were to be made, such assistance was unlikely to be forthcoming.
“We only consider the option of resettlement for recognised refugees, who have, by definition, crossed international borders, which is not the case in this context,” the spokesperson said. “That is not an option we are contemplating.”
On Wednesday, Burma’s foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, alluded to the existence of the Rakhine Action Plan at a speech to the UN General Assembly, and called on the international community to provide the restive state with increased aid. He claimed that Burma had cleared “all major concerns related to human rights,” implying that the country’s questionable human rights record should no longer receive special scrutiny by the UN.
In his annual report to the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon deemed the human rights situation in Arakan to be of particular concern, noting that, “while the government of Myanmar has repeatedly made strong statements of actions to be taken against perpetrators of violence, these have not been conveyed with sufficient firmness to the local level.”