Citizenship and Statelessness in Myanmar

By David Moore


In the post-colonial world, a couple of the most difficult decisions for newly independent states is to whom, and in what way they distribute rights, such as political and social inclusion. In Myanmar, the Rohingya people, an indigenous Muslim minority, have found themselves without rights, effectively stateless in their own homeland. In the aftermath of WWII, Myanmar emerged from British rule to claim its independence. Power has been distributed largely on ethno-linguistic lines with Burmese-speaking Buddhists holding a significant majority of the population and government during both the long period of military rule, and in the wake of more recent democratic reforms. In the modern era, systematic oppression of the Rohingya people has fueled a refugee crisis, exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness brought on by the denial of citizenship rights.

The historic oppression of the Rohingya, who have lived in the Rakhine area of Burma since the 1600s, and ethnic Burmese Muslims generally, can be seen in British-mandated censuses dating back to 1871. The original census in 1871 placed the number of Muslims in the Akyab District (Southwest Burma) at 58,255.[i] Over the next forty years, the Muslim population would more than triple, compared to an overall population doubling of the region. This growth is traced to an increased demand for cheap rice caused by the opening of the Suez Canal. Migrant Muslim workers filled this need, but would later stay in Burma instead of migrating en masse at the end of the season. Over time, the immigrant population began to outnumber other ethnic groups in the region, sparking “racism that combined feelings of superiority and fear.”[ii] These tense relations continued, turning to violence when the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942. The British retreated into India, arming the Rohingya, one of the few groups who remained. Some of the Rohingya fled into Bangladesh, but some stayed behind to fight against the Japanese and local Arakanese. After WWII, the Rohingya began actively resisting their oppression, launching a Mujahedeen campaign, a religiously motivated struggle, hoping to be incorporated into Bangladesh or Pakistan.

In 1961, the Mujahedeen surrendered to Burmese forces, but peace was not to come.[iii] In 1978, the Burmese government began a crackdown against illegal immigrants, including the Rohingya that had never been given citizenship rights despite having been in the area for generations. As a result of this, as many as 250,000 Muslims, most of them Rohingya, would flee to Bangladesh. This was followed up by the 1982 Burmese Nationality Law which legally recognized 135 ethnic groups, but not the Rohingya, leaving 800,000 people stateless.[iv] Despite the hard work and good intentions of human rights groups, little action has been made since the Eighties. Ethnic violence continues and has determined the manner in which the Rohingya interact with the central Burmese government and other ethnic groups.[v][vi]

Much of the Rohingya struggle can be tied to statelessness and their denial of jus soli rights by the Burmese government. At the beginning of 1947, Burma signed the Aung San-Attlee Agreement. The agreement gave Burma its independence and gave citizenship rights to anyone who was born in Burma had lived there for eight of the last ten years. As such, indigenous minorities like the Rohingya were counted by the Burmese government as citizens. This was affirmed by the 1948 Union Citizenship Act which defined what groups would be considered indigenous as “the Arakanese, Burmese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon or Shan race”, the first referring to the Rohingya. Almost immediately, efforts were made to dismantle Rohingya social institutions, and by 1982, the Rohingya were no longer counted among Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups.[vii] In her deeply influential work on statelessness, Linda Kerber writes that “In a world built on nationality, one simply cannot leave home without it.”[viii] The Rohingya continue to be targeted with racial and religious violence, but have no rights and no ability to return home once they have fled. Thousands have made their way to refugee camps along the Bay of Bengal, or to Bangladesh, but find little respite from their oppression. Although the international community is more than willing to speak with temerity against the Burmese government and military, there has been a remarkable timidity in regards to taking initiative to aid the Rohingya. This lack of action against the Burmese government has allowed them to act with near impunity in regards to the Rohingya and has implicitly allowed other ethnic groups to specifically target the Rohingya for violence. As Burmese democracy activist Maung Zarni reflects, “No government, no international body, is prepared to use the word genocide. Because if you do, it automatically triggers a sequence of policy action that would require the UN to intervene.”[ix] He goes on to say that while the United States and other organizations have a rhetorical commitment to human rights, economic reforms and a desire for a new trading partner have begun to supersede the desire to quell sectarian violence.[x] Although the international community often states their commitment to the protection of endangered minorities, the Rohingya are just one example of groups that international organizations have promised to protect, but failed to do so.

After WWII, the Rohingya have attempted to resist limits on their citizenship and security to varying degrees of futility. In the late 40s and throughout the 50s, the Rohingya and other Muslim groups actively took up arms against the Burmese government. Once this movement failed, the Rohingya have been forced into a reactionary position against an increasingly hostile government. Amnesty International, a group devoted to human rights, summarizes that beyond the denial of citizenship rights, the Rohingya “are also subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage.”[xi]

In light of these numerous problems, the Rohingya have turned to the international community to bring attention and perhaps action to their plight. Within the last decade, the governments of Bangladesh and Burma have worked together to repatriate and resettle some of the Rohingya that have been displaced by violence. As ever, there is no small amount of political theatre involved. The Burmese government has consistently disavowed the term “Rohingya”, calling the group “Bengalis” instead, denying them citizenship by giving them the appearance of having originated from Bangladesh. On the other side, the government of Bangladesh prefers the term, “undocumented Myanmar nationals”. [xii] Myanmar has also indicated that if Bangladesh were to use the term “Rohingya”, it would seriously strain their relationship and possibly halt negotiations. By enforcing semantic rules on the naming of the Rohingya, each side is able to shift blame to the other. For the Burmese, they are able to deny rights to their natural born citizens, while the government of Bangladesh is able to deny asylum claims and to make repatriation look like an intergovernmental favor instead of a purely political calculation.  At present, the Burmese government seem implacable about solutions to the Rohingya question, making lasting progress hard to imagine.

International inaction has slowed the progress towards rights for the Rohingya, with tens of thousands in refugee camps abroad and even more displaced and repressed internally. In April, Myanmar had its first census in over thirty years, but drastically underestimated their total population, in part due to their exclusion of the Rohingya. The solution to the Rohingya problem in Myanmar is by no means easy, but is necessary. With tenuous progress being made by the Burmese and Bangladeshi governments, it is incumbent on the United States and international organizations to foster further action. If the Burmese government continues to allow acts of genocide and the denial of citizenship rights to continue, the US must be willing to impose economic sanctions and the UN willing to commit peacekeeping troops. Likewise, Bangladesh should continue to seek increased rights and peaceful repatriation for Rohingya refugees. As a stateless people, the Rohingya do not have a mechanism for change from within and must therefore seek out the necessary aid from countries and organizations.



[i] Chan, Aye, “The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar)”, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 2005: 401.

[ii] Myint-U, Thant, The River of the Lost Footsteps, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 185.

[iii]   Khit, Yay, Tatmaw Journal, (Yangon: Burma Army. 18 July 1961) 5.

[iv] United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Burma [Myanmar]: Information on Rohingya refugees, 7 December 1999.

[v] Perlez, Jane, “Rise in Bigotry Fuels Massacre Inside Myanmar”, New York Times, March 1st, 2014, Online Edition.

[vi] Doctors Without Borders, “Tens of Thousands of Patients at Risk in Myanmar After MSF Ordered to Cease Activities”, February 28th 2014.

[vii] “Union Citizenship Act”, (1948)

[viii] Kerber, Linda, “The Stateless as the Citizen’s Other”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 112, Issue 1, (2007), 13.

[ix] Caring-Lobel, Alex “An Interview with Burmese Dissident Maung Zarni” Tricycle Magizine, March 2013, Online Edition.

[x] Ibid

[xi] Amnesty International, “Myanmar: The Rohingya Minority” May, 2004, 3.

[xii] McLaughlin, Tim and Toe Lwin, Ei Ei, “Government Rejects Repatriation Reports”, Myanmar Times, Sept. 6 2014, Online Edition.