Myanmar’s Shadow Civilian Government Pledges to Grant Rohingya Citizenship on Return to Power

Myanmar’s shadow civilian government on Friday pledged to grant citizenship to the country’s ethnic Rohingya if it regains power from the military, as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held talks with the junta about the ongoing political crisis prompted by its February coup d’état.

In a rare news conference, the National Unity Government (NUG) comprised of Myanmar’s ousted elected leadership said that it plans to amend the country’s constitution to give citizenship to the mostly Muslim ethnic group that was the target of a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine state in 2017.

The briefing came as ASEAN representatives met with the junta chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, six weeks after the bloc hosted him at an emergency summit that yielded few results in resolving the turmoil caused by his Feb. 1 military takeover.

The military claims that the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the country’s November 2020 elections was the result of voter fraud, although it has produced no evidence to support its allegations.

Although the 75-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi is listed as a leader in the NUG, recognizing the Rohingya as citizens represents a sharp break from the policy she pursued toward the beleaguered group during her 2016-21 tenure. She refused to even say the word Rohingya in public and defended the military against crimes against humanity charges in 2019 at the international Court of Justice.

NUG’s minister of Human Rights Aung Myo Min told reporters during the press conference that his government “will recognize all those who are qualified to be citizens as citizens,” adding that “more discussion” is needed to determine whether the Rohingya community will be recognized as a national ethnic group.

“We will have to work on the designation in the Constitution, the provision in citizenship law and the process of verification on the qualification of citizenship. At the same time, we will have to conduct meetings and engagements with all parties concerned in Rakhine state.”

“We will actively seek justice and accountability for all crimes committed by the military against the Rohingyas and all other people of Myanmar throughout our history,” the statement reads. “We intend if necessary to initiate processes to grant [the] International Criminal Court jurisdiction over crimes committed within Myanmar against the Rohingyas and other communities."

On Thursday, NUG issued a “Policy Position on the Rohingya in Rakhine State,” that acknowledged the rights of the ethnic group and the harsh treatment they have faced in Myanmar, where they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The policy said NUG is committed to abolishing the National Verification Card process that treats Rohingya as foreigners and would ensure citizenship rights for all people born in the country, regardless of their ethnic background.

NUG also affirmed its commitment to “voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation” of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine state from neighboring Bangladesh, where around 745,000 members of the minority group fled amid a 2017 crackdown by the military and now live in sprawling displacement camps. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still reside in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Aung Myo Min said Friday that NUG also had chosen to acknowledge and use the name “Rohingya” for the community in its policy plan, unlike any previous government in Myanmar, “because a group of people has the right to choose their own identity.”

He pointed to widespread criticism over clauses in Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, such as those limiting citizenship to people born in the country from only certain ethnic groups and called for its abolishment in favor of a “more complete and democratic law in compliance with human rights principles.”

Aung Myo Min added that a discussion was underway to nominate a Rohingya to the NUG cabinet for the purpose of diversity inclusion but said that such a decision would need to be the result of a consensus by the entire government.

During Friday’s briefing, which also addressed an ongoing coronavirus outbreak and the training of the NUG-backed People’s Defense Forces (PDF)—formed to protect Myanmar’s citizens against the military—the junta shut down the country’s internet data services, only restoring them an hour later.

‘No hope’ in ASEAN efforts


As NUG held its press conference, state television announced that Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi met with Min Aung Hlaing to discuss the outcome of last month’s ASEAN summit, COVID-19 vaccination availability, the “terrorist acts” of the NUG, voter registration “irregularities” in the November 2020 ballot, and the possibility of a new election. Few details were provided on the substance of Friday’s talks.

Earlier this week, an Indonesian diplomat told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the delegation’s purpose was to seek Myanmar’s approval of an ASEAN special envoy for the crisis, who is yet to be named. He said the choice of the envoy involved both sides, making progress slow.

On Friday, NUG Deputy Foreign Minister Moe Zaw Oo said the shadow government had requested talks with ASEAN but did not receive a response.

“They should be holding talks with both sides, not just one,” he said.

“At this point, we don’t have any hopes for a positive result from ASEAN’s efforts. They don’t seem to have a proper coordinated plan. Frankly speaking, this is something ASEAN must work on seriously for their credibility, and not in a superficial manner.”

NUG youth leader Thinzar Shun Le Yee noted that several ASEAN members had called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other ousted leaders during the summit in Jakarta on April 24, but that the request was left out of the bloc’s official statement at its conclusion.

“It showed their lack of sincerity,” he said. “We have been closely watching the visit and we are now concerned about whether they have officially recognized the junta.”

Terms agreed to at the Jakarta summit included an immediate end to the violence in Myanmar that has seen nearly 850 people killed since the coup, dialogue between the military and NUG, mediation of the dialogue by the special envoy, and safe entry for humanitarian aid. None of the terms have been met.

Political analyst Than Soe Naing told RFA that ASEAN should be aware no political solution will be attainable for Myanmar unless the country’s ousted leaders are first released from detention.

“Secondly, by meeting only with the military and listening to just one side of the story, it could mean ASEAN is ignoring NUG and has officially recognized the military [regime],” he said.

“Our people are expecting them to meet with all parties concerned and to strive to find ways to solve the problem not through violence, but by peaceful means.”

Than Soe Naing’s comments echoed a statement issued earlier this week by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), which urged Myanmar’s military to adhere to ASEAN recommendations and meet with all key stakeholders.

And on Friday, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar (SAC-M) group of international experts that include former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee and former chair of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar Marzuki Darusman, released a statement that said the ASEAN delegation in Myanmar is obligated under its mandate to meet with the NUG and the democracy movement.

“Failure to meet with all relevant parties risks lending legitimacy to the junta and undermines the enormous effort and sacrifice made by the people of Myanmar to resist the junta’s violent and unlawful attempt to seize power,” the statement said.

Guarded welcome from Rohingya

Rohingya leaders in Bangladesh on Friday guardedly welcomed a pledge by Myanmar’s shadow government to grant citizenship to members of their stateless community if and when it returns to power, with refugees saying they have been cheated many times before.

Master Md. Ilias, who fled Myanmar and lives in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, said he was one of the Rohingya leaders consulted by the parallel Burmese civilian National Unity Government before it issued its groundbreaking statement on Thursday.

“In the past, they [the majority Buddhist leaders] repeatedly cheated and suppressed us. But we cautiously welcome the statement,” Ilias told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

“We want to believe that the NUG will return all of our civil and political rights and citizenship, but many of us would not trust them so easily.”

Tun Khin, a Rohingya in Britain, said the NUG’s pledge “is a welcome step forward … but its policy is far from perfect.”

Rohingya also expressed disappointment that the parallel civilian government’s statement from a day earlier did not refer to the Burmese military’s atrocities against the Rohingya as constituting a “genocide,” or what the United Nations described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

“The NUG Myanmar must, crucially, recognize that a genocide is taking place against the Rohingya,” said Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya organization in the U.K., via Twitter.

“If we can’t face the reality of the past, there is no way that we can build a common future.”

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service and by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.