A Pathway to Citizenship as a Solution to the Rohingya Human Rights Crisis in Myanmar

By: Brittany Jones

Today, thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar have been killed, internally displaced, or live as refugees in neighboring countries as a result of ethnic violence carried out by the Burmese government.[1] Myanmar’s history of ethnic conflict with the Rohingya is very complicated and requires a basic understanding of how the country was established. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was a British colony prior to its independence in 1948.[2] Myanmar’s population is mostly Buddhist and dominated by the ethnic Bamar people who make up sixty-eight percent of the population.[3] Although the country recognizes more than 135 other ethnic groups including the Mon, Kokang Chinese, Rakhine, and Kachin, it does not recognize the Rohingya as native to Myanmar.[4]

Since its independence, most ethnic groups in Burma shared equal rights and representation.[5] Although Burma began as a representative democracy, in the early 1960s, the country was taken over by a military coup.[6] The military regime sought to promote inclusivity among the ethnic groups and, in 1989, the country’s official name changed from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar.[7] The country was under military rule until 2011.[8]

Despite the long history that the Rohingya have in the country prior to its independence, the government does not recognize the Rohingya as native to the country.[9] Essentially, the public view of the Rohingya is that they are simply Bengali immigrants who are trying to take over parts of the country and spread Islam.[10] The government and many members of the public do not acknowledge the term Rohingya to describe the people for fear that they could lose the Rakhine territory where most of the Rohingya population resides.[11] As a result, the Rohingya have a long history of experiencing ethnic violence implemented by the government.[12]

Myanmar should 1) acknowledge that the Rohingya are not simply Bengali immigrants, but a unique population that has been settled in Myanmar for centuries and 2) amend its 1982 Citizenship Law to create a pathway of citizenship for the Rohingya.

At the core of finding a multi-dimensional solution to ending the cycle of violence against the Rohingya the government must amend the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law. The government must create a pathway of citizenship for minority ethnic groups, specifically the Rohingya, who do not have ties to familial citizens as defined in the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law and for those who do not have historical records of their existence prior to 1823.

The 1982 Burma Citizenship Law provides three categories of citizenship: citizen, associate citizen, and natural citizen.[13] Only eight ethnic groups and ethnic groups that settled in the country prior to 1823 A.D. are considered Burmese citizens.[14] The Law also grants the government the discretion to declare whether an ethnic group is a national.[15] Associate citizens are defined in the Union Citizenship Act of 1948 as anyone who was born after Burma’s independence in 1948 and is only extended to those children whose parents qualify as citizens.[16] Furthermore, the government defines natural citizens as those who have resided within the country since or before January 4, 1948.[17] Thus, if any minority group is outside of these categories and yet is historically native to the country, then they are rendered stateless.

There are no simple solutions to the egregious international humanitarian issue in Myanmar. The Burmese government has actively worked to close the international community off from accessing the refugee camps where the Rohingya are living.[18] International observers cannot step foot into the areas where the Rohingya have evacuated without government permission.[19] Such actions by the Burmese government demonstrate that they have significant human rights abuses to hide from the international community.[20] Thus, the international outcry and pressure on Myanmar’s leaders must continue in order for legislative change to occur.[21]


[1] Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/tag/rohingya-crisis (last visited Nov. 6, 2017).

[2] Myanmar: State, Society and Ethnicity 150 (N. Ganesan, Kyaw Yin Hlaing eds., 2007).

[3] Oxford Burma Alliance, http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/ethnic-groups.html (last visited Nov. 6, 2017).

[4] Myanmar: Major ethnic groups and where they live, Aljazeera,  http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2017/03/myanmar-major-ethnic-groups-live-170309143208539.html (last updated Mar. 14, 2017).

[5] Krishnadev Calamur, The Misunderstood Roots of Burma’s Rohingya Crisis, The Atlantic (Sep. 25, 2017), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/rohingyas-burma/540513/.

[6] Maung Zarni and Alice Cowley, Note, The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya, 23 Pac. Rim L. & Pol’y J. 683, 684 (2014).

[7] David I. Steinberg, Burma The State of Myanmar xi (Georgetown University Press 2001).

[8] Id.

[9]  The Rohingya: Silent Abuse, Aljazeera (Aug. 9, 2017, 9:10 GMT), http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeeraworld/2017/07/rohingya-silent-abuse-170730120336898.html.

[10] Id.

[11] Calamur, supra note 5.

[12] Benjamin Zawacki, Note, Defining Myanmar’s “Rohingya Problem” 20 Hum. Rts. Br. 18, 18 (2013).

[13] Burma Citizenship Law 1982, http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b4f71b.html (last visited Nov. 6, 2017).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] “(1) For the purposes of section 11 of the Constitution the expression “any of the indigenous races of Burma” shall mean the Arakanese, Burmese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon or Shan race and such racial group as has settled in any of the territories included within the Union as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1823 A. D. (1185 B.E.).” The Union Citizenship Act, 1948, http://www.burmalibrary.org/docs/UNION_CITIZENSHIP_ACT-1948.htm (last visited Nov. 6, 2017).

[17] Burma Citizenship Law 1982, supra note 1.

[18] The Rohingya: Silent Abuse, supra note 9.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] “The Burmese government, under international pressure, has tried to come up with a solution to this issue, setting up a commission under Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general. The so-called Advisory Commission on Rakhine State issued a number of recommendations, including a review of the 1982 citizenship law. Suu Kyi, the country’s de-facto leader, embraced those recommendations made on August 25th . . . Suu Kyi has been widely condemned for her controversial remarks about the Rohingya, as well as her perceived silence on the violence inflicted upon them. Several commentators have argued the Nobel laureate has lost her moral authority. Her fellow Nobel peace laureates Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai have urged her to protect the Rohingya. Her speech this week was also condemned because she did not mention the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya.” Calamur, supra note 5.