9 September 2014

Buddhists and Muslims in a market in the village of Sin Tet Maw in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, Sept. 10, 2018. (Minzayar Oo/The New York Times).

A senior United Nations delegation departed for the Arakan State capital of Sittwe on Monday to “take stock of the ongoing humanitarian and development situation in Rakhine [Arakan] State and review priorities for the UN system,” according to a statement.

Assistant Secretary-General Haoliang Xu, who is also the assistant administrator for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and its regional director for Asia and the Pacific, is accompanied by John Ging, the director of the Coordination and Response Division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

The visit is part of a weeklong visit to the country, Xu’s first in his official capacity. Xu and Ging will subsequently meet with Burma’s vice president, Dr. Sai Mauk Kham, and other senior ministers in Naypyidaw later this week. The pair will depart Burma on Friday.

The visit will focus on the implementation of the UN’s development and humanitarian assistance programmes in the restive state, which has witnessed a surge of communal violence since 2012. In recent months, Arakanese Buddhist nationalists have voiced significant opposition to the activities of UN agencies and international NGOs in the state, which they claim are biased towards Muslims.

“The UN is looking at Rakhine in a more holistic manner,” said Pierre Peron, UNOCHA’s public information officer in Burma. “It’s one of the poorest states in the country.”

In late July, the regional government invited NGOs and UN agencies to help implement an “Action Plan for Peace, Stability and Development in Rakhine State.” Formulated with input from NGOs, UN agencies, civil society actors and foreign diplomats, it is expected to address issues surrounding humanitarian aid, the resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the government’s development priorities, but its contents have not been made publicly available.

A controversial cornerstone of the government’s new strategy in Arakan is a “citizenship verification” programme launched in June, intended to give stateless individuals – primarily Rohingya Muslims – the chance to acquire citizenship. But the programme compels individuals who identify as Rohingya to register as “Bengalis,” nomenclature that implies “alien” origins in neighbouring Bangladesh. It is a designation rejected by the vast majority of Rohingya, whose presence in the restive region dates back generations.

Many Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship under Burma’s restrictive 1982 Citizenship Law, which allows individuals to become “naturalised citizens” if they can prove their ancestors resided in Burma prior to independence in 1948. The burden of proof for “full” citizenship is higher, with a cutoff date of 1823, the beginning of British colonial rule in Arakan. For most Rohingya, their family histories are difficult to document, owing to a lack of a paper trail befitting the government’s exacting requirements.

Last Thursday, a delegation led by Sai Mauk Kham, which included government ministers, INGO officials, and the ambassadors of Turkey and Brunei, visited two IDP camps near Sittwe. He was quoted in state media as saying that IDPs should be relocated to areas close to where they were displaced from, and that the “initial step” for resettlement would be “when the two communities can accept the same conditions for stability and the citizenship scrutiny measures being taken by the government.”

But the notion that citizenship should be contingent on the rejection of Rohingya identity earned the government’s policies a stern rebuke from the newly-appointed UN special rapporteur on human rights, Yanghee Lee. In July, she asserted that, under the principles of international law, minorities have the right “to self-identify on the basis of their national, ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics.”

She criticised the 1982 Citizenship Law, claiming that it should not “be an exception” immune from amendment during Burma’s current process of legislative reform, despite the substantial level of domestic support the law enjoys.

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