By Lynn Kuok
The conflict in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh threatens to derail the country’s attempts to break with its authoritarian past and move towards a democratic future.
It has, at its roots, the policies of successive Myanmar governments which have considered the Rohingya to be foreigners, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
The Rohingya, estimated at about 2 percent of the population, were effectively rendered stateless after the Myanmar government passed an onerous citizenship law in 1982. The law states that citizens are “nationals such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine, or Shan”, or those whose ancestors settled in Myanmar prior to 1823.
The exclusion of the Rohingya as “nationals” puts the onus on them to show pre-1823 proof of settlement—a formidable task for a poor and marginalized community in which many lack documentation or any historical records.
The 1982 law not only denies the Rohingya citizenship; it also signals that they do not belong to the Myanmar nation. Such a view is held by the Arakanese majority in Rakhine and contributes to the animosity between the two groups. Fierce fighting has broken out between them. Much of Myanmar’s society also shares this view, including ethnic groups which have themselves suffered at the hands of Myanmar’s earlier authoritarian governments.
Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa earlier this month visited Rakhine to offer financial assistance. But there is more that Indonesia can offer. The plight of the marginalized Rohingya community parallels that of the Chinese minority in Indonesia, many of whom have suffered actual or threatened violence at the hands of the pribumi or indigenous population.
After Indonesia became independent in 1946, the ethnic Chinese were conferred citizenship only to have this status undermined by government policies simultaneously seeking to assimilate and discriminate against them. For instance, the Indonesian Chinese were the only group in a country with over 1,000 ethnicities who had to produce a Certificate of Indonesian Citizenship to obtain official documents. Notably, President Suharto’s New Order sought to eradicate Chinese media, schools, and organizations.
These assimilationist and discriminatory measures ultimately failed from a nation-building perspective: they marked the community out as outsiders and not truly “Indonesian,” making them easy scapegoats when frustrations ran high.
Post-Suharto, many (though not all) of the discriminatory measures against the Chinese have been revoked, and Chinese culture, language, and religion have been celebrated by successive Indonesian leaders. The government’s about-turn has the important effect of signalling that the Chinese are an integral part of the nation and must be treated as such. This has helped to reduce hostility towards Chinese Indonesians.
Myanmar has taken some steps to resolve the conflict in Rakhine, including appointing a commission to investigate its causes and to make recommendations for its resolution. The commission’s interim report has not been made available to the public, but it reportedly calls, among other things, for actions to curb illegal immigration.
If change in Rakhine is to occur, the government must amend the 1982 law to meet legitimate citizenship claims and to vest this with real meaning. In seeking to make progress towards national reconciliation, the Burmese government will do well to take the experiences of its largest Southeast Asian neighbor to heart.
Dr. Lynn Kuok is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Her research focuses on the relationship between race, religion, nationalism, and peace and conflict, as well as on the politics of Southeast Asia.