In Retrospect

A wake-up call

The ongoing and contentious election in Myanmar have once again spotlighted the nation’s deeply problematic citizenship laws which have rendered many minorities as stateless — a tragedy that must serve as a warning for the citizens of India as it looks to enact similar laws

A wake-up call

India and the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, classified by the United Nations as a low-income country, share 1,643 kilometre-long common borders along the Patkai Hills. India's four states; Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh share an international border with Myanmar. It is a country where the world's two most populous nations, namely, China and India, meet each other.

The ethnic 'Burman' people form the majority of Myanmar's population and their influence on the politics, economics, and demographics of the country is evident. All the different ethnicities in Myanmar may technically be called 'Burmese', however not all Burmese people are 'Burmans'. The apparent superiority of the Burman people, historically, in the affairs of Myanmar is because it was the Burman people whose ancestors formed the warring dynasties of imperial Burma. However, several other ethnic minorities may be found both within and beyond the borders of Myanmar. The Arakanese, the Shans, the Mons, the Chins, the Karens, and the Kachins and the controversial Rohingyas are all examples of ethnic communities who had settled in Myanmar at some point of time.

Myanmar and India are indisputably linked by a shared history. In the 13th century, the Indian state of Assam was conquered from the east by 'Ahoms', who hailed from the Shan region of the Burma–China Border. They ruled the Brahmaputra valley until they were conquered by the Burmese in the 19th century. The Rohingya are frequently called Bengalis by their persecutors to indicate their foreign origin. It has been suggested that they are descended from slaves that both Rakhine kings and Portuguese mercenaries took from undivided Bengal in 16th and 17th centuries, workers migrating from undivided Bengal during the British Raj, as well as post-independence migrants from Bangladesh, or East Pakistan, as it was called then. In fact, in pre-Colonial times, at various periods of the history of this region, Bengali rulers had large stretches of Arakan, now called Rakhine, under their control. On the other hand, parts of undivided Bengal including Chittagong in present Bangladesh were under the rule of Arakanese kings.

An election under a fragile quasi-democratic political system

Myanmar, with a population of nearly 60 million, is a nascent democracy. The political system, though unitary informal structure, is highly federal operationally. It has a history of ethnic autonomy of various degrees. The political system is a little more complex than other political systems as it has a mix of formal and informal political structures. The informal political forces (militant groups) have influence in certain areas of the country, particularly in the border areas. These non-state actors are active in many parts of the country.

The 2008 Constitution, as well as other laws, has created a legal framework for Myanmar that tried to establish the balance of authority between the centre and subnational actors. Today, on November 8, 2020, the parliamentary, state, and local elections of Myanmar are scheduled. The national elections will be Myanmar's first since 2015 which resulted in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD). This is the third election since the former military rulers allowed a measure of democracy and introduced multi-party elections ten years ago. Although more than 90 parties are contesting the elections, only two are serious contenders: the NLD and the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Under Myanmar's 2008 constitution, promulgated by the military to ensure the protection of its interests, only 75 per cent of seats in Myanmar's parliament are up for election, while 25 per cent of seats in both the upper and lower houses are reserved for serving military appointees. Any party not affiliated with the military must win over two-thirds of the remaining seats (i,e 50 per cent) to form a majority in the parliament, while military-affiliated parties need to win just over one-third (i.e. 25 per cent of the unreserved seats) of the seats to obtain an effective majority. The army chief appoints three ministers — border, defence and interior — and exercises enormous autonomy over budget, defence and security matters.

To amend the Constitution to restrict the role of the military in civilian matters, approval of three fourth of the elected members are required. This is theoretically possible if all the civilian representatives, cutting across political lines, decide to change the constitution. In its 2015 landslide victory, the NLD took 86 per cent of all eligible seats in the lower house of parliament. The NLD campaigned on the platform of constitutional reform. However, it was unable to amend the constitution without votes from among the 25 per cent of members of parliament appointed by the military, as the constitution requires a 75 per cent vote to amend the charter. Efforts since then to remove the military's veto have failed.

Though in the 2020 election also, NLD, under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to win, the constitutional strictures granting the military a quarter of parliament remain in place. So does the ban on voting by most Rohingya, to whom the Government has denied citizenship; some 1 million members of that ethnic group remain exiled in Bangladesh after being driven out of the country three years ago in a bloody ethnic-cleansing campaign. Other ethnic minority groups will also be prevented from voting, ostensibly because of on-going military campaigns. In total, according to Human Rights Watch, voting has been cancelled in all or parts of at least 56 townships, disenfranchising 1.5 million people. It is worth noting that according to the 2014 Union of Myanmar census, up to 11,000,207 persons did not have a valid identification document (27.3 per cent of persons over the age of 10).

Burma Citizenship Law

The 1982 Burma Citizenship Law distinguishes between three categories of citizenship: citizenship, associate citizenship, and naturalized citizenship. A person is issued a colour-coded Citizenship Scrutiny Card consistent with his or her citizenship status — pink, blue, and green respectively.

Myanmar follows a complex citizenship law, in which nationality is based on membership of one of 135 'national races' that supposedly lived within the country's boundaries before the British invaded

in 1824. The law, created by Myanmar's military dictatorship in 1982, excludes others from full citizenship but allows them to apply for two lower tiers with fewer rights.

Citizens are persons who belong to one of the national races (Kachin, Kayah (Karenni), Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Shan, Kaman, or Zerbadee) or whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823, the beginning of British occupation of Arakan State.

If a person cannot provide evidence that his ancestors settled in Burma before 1823, he or she can be classified as an associate citizen if one grandparent or pre-1823 ancestor was a citizen of another country. Those persons who qualified for citizenship under the 1948 law, but who would no longer qualify under this new law, are also considered associate citizens if they had applied for citizenship in 1948.

To become a naturalized citizen, a person must be able to provide "conclusive evidence" that he or his parents entered and resided in Burma before independence in 1948. Persons who have at least one parent who holds one of the three types of Burmese citizenship is also eligible.

Burmese 1982 Citizenship Law institutionalized the Rohingyas' statelessness. The law does not recognize Rohingyas as one of the ethnic groups of Myanmar, thus denying most of them Myanmar citizenship.

In essence, one of the main characteristics of a "naturalised" or an "associate" citizen in Myanmar is that he or she does not belong to one of the eight legally recognised ethnic groups (Bamar, Chin, Karen, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan, later sub-divided into 135 groups through an administrative instruction), considered to be genuine citizens. The official policies on legal identity in Myanmar reflect a "thick" nationalist, a post-colonial attempt at nation-building based on a highly exclusive understanding of ethnic belonging.

Myanmar citizens are required to obtain a National Registration Card (NRC), while non-citizens are given a Foreign Registration Card (FRC). Those who hold FRCs are not allowed to run for public office.

Creation of 'stateless people'

Since the 1970s, citizenship policies have been the source of considerable social and political conflict in the country, particularly but not exclusively in Rakhine State, on the border with Bangladesh. The key shift in policy leading to such problems took place under the regime of General Ne Win (1962-1988), which, via an "authorization exercise", aimed to "scrutinize" the population to determine who were "full citizens" and who were simply "guests" (e.g., descendants of unrecognized minorities and migrants). This has been since undertaken through a law-making process reflected by the 1982 Citizenship Law and its 1983 procedures. Under this framework, only full citizens have the possibility of enjoying the protection of a complete set of rights, while the "others" – naturalized and associated citizens – are in practice banned from higher positions in public office, full access to the liberal professions, and certain areas of higher education. A large number of permanent residents do not even gain access to these lesser forms of citizenship and remain undocumented or stateless.

The stated aim of Ne Win's 1982 Citizenship Law was to create a two-tiered system, which excluded full citizenship persons whose ancestors were deemed to have settled in Myanmar after the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26). The idea behind this was the notion that only pre-colonial communities were authentic Burmese citizens (and that certain communities such as the Muslims of Rakhine were newcomers and hence not genuine citizens). The objective aimed at creating an exclusive notion of Burmese national identity based on a pre-colonial primarily Buddhist population.

In July 1995, in response to UNHCR's intensive advocacy efforts to document the Rohingyas, the regime moved to regularize the population of northern Arakan by issuing new cards to all Rohingya residents. According to the regime, it was "the first step toward citizenship". The new card, which was called Temporary Registration Card (TRC), was issued under the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act and the 1951 Residents of Burma Registration Rules, both of which acts were superseded by the 1982 Citizenship Law but were reintroduced to be used solely for the registration of Rohingyas. During the elections in 2010, holders of TRC were granted the right to form and join political parties, and to vote. However, later steps were taken to prevent them from participating in political life.

In September 2014, the Parliament amended the Political Parties Registration Law, introducing a requirement for party leaders to be "full" citizens, and for party members to be "full" or "naturalized" citizens. In February 2015, the Government announced the expiry of "temporary identity certificates" held by some 7,00,000 stateless people across the country, including the Rohingya, the Chinese and

other minority groups. In May 2015, the right of temporary identity certificate-holders to vote in the general election was revoked.

The Myanmar model of Citizenship Law!

The prolonged student movement in Assam, since the 1970s, to disenfranchise 'foreigners' led to the signing of the Assam accord in 1985. As per the accord, all people who came to Assam before January 1, 1966, would be given citizenship. Those who moved in between January 1, 1966, and March 24, 1971, would be "detected in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order 1964". Their names would be deleted from the electoral rolls and they would remain disenfranchised for 10 years. Lastly, the accord provided a resolution to the case of those who entered Indian borders after March 24, 1971. "Foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971, shall continue to be detected, deleted and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners," said the accord. These provisions strikingly resemble the 1982 Citizenship Law of Ne Win!

To honour various provisions of the Assam Accord, the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) and Citizenship Act of India have been amended resulting in thousands of 'stateless people' in Assam. The same exercise is being planned in other parts of India also.

The inhuman condition of millions of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities of Myanmar and Assam should act as loud wake up calls for the democratic citizens of India.

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