Rohingyas are not illegal immigrants in Burma

By Aman Ullah

On February 2, 2015, the Burmese Parliament approved a referendum, which is called 2015 Referendum Law. This law automatically enfranchises hundreds of thousands of white card holders, who live in Burma but successive Burmese regime denied to give them full citizenship rights.
A referendum is expected to be held in mid-2015, when the public will be asked to approve amendments to Burma’s military-drafted charter. A constitutional review committee has recommended a total of 95 revisions, though they have yet to be approved by Parliament or the president.

These white card holders’ vaguely-defined legal status was being abused by the USDP and government for political gains during voting. They created this policy since 2008 when the country had a referendum.

About 700,000 of them belong to the Rohingya Muslim in northern Arakan State. The Rohingya Muslims of Arakan have a more than 1300 years old tradition, culture, history and civilization of their own expressed in their shrines, cemeteries, sanctuaries, social and cultural institutions found scattered even today in every nock and corner of the land. By preserving their own heritages from the impact of Buddhist environments, they formed their own society with a consolidated population in Arakan well before the Burmese invasions of Arakan in 1784.

Jacques Leider, in his article, ‘Between Revolt and Normality: Arakan after Burmese Conquest’ mentioned that, “we admit of a total population of Arakan of circa 250,000 in the time of (the Burmese) conquest, the country steadily lost up to 50% of its population. English observers estimated the Arakanese population at about 100,000 at the time of the British conquest.”

According to the British government document on the cultures and inhabitants of Arakan by the Secret and Political Department, Fort William dated 26th April 1826, “The population of Arracan and its dependencies Ramree, Cheduba & Sandaway does not at present exceed 100,00 souls, may be classed as — Mughs six tenths, – Mussalman three tenths, – Burmese one tenth, Total 100,000 Souls–.” As to Mr. Paton, Sub Commissioner of Arakan, who submitted this report from Akyab, “The extent of the Population has been tolerably well ascertained, proved a census taken by Mr. Robertson, and myself, and may be considered as approximating very nearly to the truth.”

That’s means that among the 100,000 souls; Mughs 60,000, Muslims 30,000 and Burmese 10,000. So in the date of conquest of Arakan by the British, there remained thirty-thousand Muslims and these thirty thousand Muslims were living there from before, now their descendants and successors have increased leaps and bounds.

No one in British Burma would dispute that there was a group of “Arakan Muslims” who could indeed trace their roots back to the 17th Century and even earlier and who were quite distinct from the Chittagonians and Bengali immigrants to Arakan.

According to the censuses of both 1921 and 1931, it has clearly mentioned that, ‘There was a Muslim community in Arakan, particularly in Akyab District, who prefers to call themselves Arakan-Mahomadens and were quite distinct from the Chittgonians and Bengali immigrants to Arakan.’ ‘According to Baxter report of 1940, paragraph 7, “This Arakanese Muslim community settled so long in Akyab District had for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race.”

Indigenous peoples were the descendants of those peoples that inhabited a territory prior to colonization or formation of the present state. Hence, these Muslims of Arakan, who identify themselves as Rohingya, are for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race and are also a racial group who had settled in Arakan/Union of Burma as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1823 A. D. (1185 B.E.).

The Rohingya is not simply a self-referential group identity, but an official group and ethnic identity recognized by the post-independence state. In the early years of Myanmar’s independence, the Rohingya were recognized as a legitimate ethnic group that deserved a homeland in Burma

Thus, during the colonial rule the British recognized the separate identity of the Rohingyas and declared north Arakan as the Muslim Region. Again there are instances that Prime Minister U Nu, Prime Minister U Ba Swe, other ministers and high- ranking civil and military official, stated that the Rohingyas people like the Shan, Kachin, Karen, Kaya, Mon and Rakhine. They have the same rights and privileges as the other nationals of Burma regardless of their religious beliefs or ethnic background.

Being one of the indigenous races and bona fide citizens of Burma, the Rohingyas were enfranchised in all the national and local elections of Burma: – during the later colonial period (1935-1948), during the democratic period (1948-1962), during the BSPP regime (1962-1988), 1990 multi-party election held by SLORC and 2010 General Election held by SPDC. Their representatives were in the Legislative Assembly, in the Constituent Assembly and in the Parliament. As members of the new Parliament, their representatives took the oath of allegiance to the Union of Burma on the 4thJanuary 1948. Their representatives were appointed as cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries.

Legislative Assembly Election of 1936

The first and only election held under the Government of Burma Act 1935 that took place in November 1936. Before 1937, Burma was a province of British Indian Empire. In 1937 Burma was separated from India under the British Administration. A new constitution came into effect. Under its provisions the people of Burma were given a bigger role to play in the running of their country.

Under the 1935 Act there were 132 seats in the House of Representatives, 91 of the seats were general non-communal seats and the remaining 41 being reserved for communal and special interest groups of which 12 were reserved for Karen (of Ministerial Burma), 8 for Indians, 2 for Anglo-Burmans, and 3 for Europeans. But, according to Martin Smith, ‘there was no separate representation for the Mons of Lower Burma; the question of seats of the Southern Chin, the Arakanese Muslims including Kamans and Myedus, the Zerbadis from the mixed Burma Muslims union. The single exception has been North Arakan, where Muslims from distinct majority constituency in several districts along the Bangladesh border.’ {Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity 1999} Thus, the Rohingya Muslims of Akyab district North constituency, a non-communal rural constituency, were recognize as children of the soil and in the first time taken as eligible to vote or to stand for election on the ground of their being one of the indigenous communities of Burma. Mr. Ghani Markin returned on the votes of those Rohingyas as a Member of Legislative Assembly.

Constituent Assembly election of 1947

The second election was held under the Aung San-Atlee Agreement that was signed on 27 January 1947. According to that agreement, which said, ‘in order to decide on the future of Burma a Constituent Assembly shall be elected within four months instead of Legislature under the Act of 1935. For this purpose the electoral machinery of 1935 Act will be used. Election will take place in April 1947 for the general non-communal, the Karen and the Anglo-Burman constituencies as constituted under the Act of 1935, and each constituency two member shall be returned. Any Burma nationals defined in the ‘Annex A’ of the Agreement registered in a general constituency other than one of those mentioned above shall be placed on the register of a general non-communal constituency.’

According to ‘Annex A’ of the Agreement, ‘A Burma National is defined for the purpose of eligibility to vote and to stand as a candidate at the forth coming election as British subject or the subject of an Indian State who was born in Burma and reside there for a total period not less than eight years in the ten years immediately preceding either 1st January, 1942 or 1st January 1947’.

Immediately before the last election, the Muslims of Akyab district North constituency were recognized as children of the soil and first taken as eligible to vote or to stand for election on the ground of their being one of the indigenous races of Burma, but when the Aung San – Atlee     Agreement was out, the government misunderstood the position and it was notified that unless they declared themselves as Burma nationals, they would not be eligible to vote or to stand for election to the constituent Assembly.

According to Mr. Sultan Ahmed, who became later a member of Constituent Assembly, ‘It is not understood how they can be treated under clause (IV) section II of the Constitution. By so doing about 95% of the population residing in this constituency, at a stroke of the pen, become foreigners, which action they strongly felt as unjust and uncalled for.’

The Muslims of that constituencies made strong protest against this decision on the ground of their being one of the indigenous races of Burma. The government withheld the first decision and allowed the Muslims to vote or stand for elections held in March 1947. Mr. Sultan Ahmed and Mr. Abdul Gaffar returned on the votes of this Muslims as members of the constituent Assembly. They continued in their office, representing the Akyab district North constituency till Burmese independence and took the oath of allegiance to the Union of Burma on the 4th January 1948 as members of the new parliament of the Union of Burma.

‘This decision and action of the government conclusively proved that these Muslims as a whole or in-groups are accepted as one of the indigenous races of Burma. And in this connection, it may be pointed out that the Akyab district North constituency is non-communal rural constituency and these Muslims of Arakan belong to this constituency’ remarked Mr. Sultan Ahemd.

Parliamentary Elections during 1948-1962

Since the holding of the constituent Assembly till 1962 military took over, three general elections were held for both Chambers of the Parliament in 1952, 1956 and 1960 respectively. The Rohingyas had enjoyed the right to vote and the right to be elected as children of the soil in all the elections. In 1952, Mr. Sultan Ahmed, Daw Aye Nyunt (a) Zohora Begam, Mr. Abul Bashar and U Poe Khine (a) Nasir Uddin were elected as members of the Chamber of Deputies and Mr. Abdul Gaffer was elected as a member of the Chamber of Nationalities. In 1956, Mr. Sultan Ahmed, Mr. Abul Khair, Mr. Abul Bahsar and Mr. Ezahar Mian were elected as the members of the Chamber of Deputies and Mr. Abdul Gaffer remained as a member of the Chamber of Nationalities. A by-election was held for the Buthidaung North Constituency in 1957 as the election of Mr. Ezahar Main was challenged and the verdict was given against him. Mr. Sultan Mahmood was elected and he was inducted in the cabinet of U Nu as a Minister of Health. In 1960, Mr. Rashid Ahmed, Mr. Abul Khair, Mr. Abul Bahsar and Mr. Sultan Mahmood were elected as members of the Chamber of Deputies while Mr. Abdus Suban was elected as a member of the Chamber of Nationalities.

General Election during 1962- 1988 in BSPP Regime

During the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) rule, four general elections for the People’s assembly and People’s Council at different levels were held in 1974, 1978, 1982 and 1986 respectively. These elections had been held on the basis of the 1974 Constitution.

Under the 1974 Constitution and 1973 Election Law, ‘citizens born of parents both of whom are Union nationals and citizens born of parents both of whom are Union citizens, have the right to be elected people’s representatives to the People’s Assembly or People’s Council at different levels. Persons who are not citizens of the Union of Burma have no right to vote.’

According to the 1974 Constitution, ‘citizens are those who are born of the parents whom are nationals of the Socialist Republic of Union of the Burma and who are vested with citizenship according to existing laws on the date of this constitution comes into force.’

Former Minister for Mines Dr. Nyi Nyi and Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Minister U Win Ko had to resign from the position of the members of cabinet and People’s Assembly, as they could not fulfill the requirement of the said law.

The Rohingyas had enjoyed the right to vote and the right to be elected as people’s representatives to the Organ of State power at different levels. No Rohingya who had either been elected or who had applied for the nomination had neither been challenged nor barred from participation or asked to resign after being elected.

Multi-Party Election of 1990

SLORC held multi-party general election in May 1990. The Rohingya were not only allowed to vote but also, in their exercise of franchise, elected four Rohingya members of Parliament. U Chit Lwin (a) Ebrahim, Mr. Fazal Ahmed, U Kyaw Min (a) Shomshul Anwarul Haque, and U Tin Maung (a) Nur Ahmed have been elected as members of the Parliament.

Under the1989 election law ‘all citizens, associate citizens and naturalized citizens are permitted to vote, but only the citizens are allowed to stand for election. No foreign residents were allowed to vote.’ Thus, allowing taking part in the national elections must be upheld as a measure of recognition for the Rohingyas as full citizens.

In fact the Rohingyas were not only permitted to vote but also to form their own political parties during the May 1990 election. Two parties were formed the Students and Youth League for Mayu Development and the National Democratic and Human Rights (NDPHR). The NDPHR won all four seats in Maung Daw and Buthidaung constituencies, and in each constituency votes for the two parties counted for 80 per cent of the total votes cast. Moreover, the turnout in both constituencies equaled the national average, at 70 per cent of eligible voters. The NDPHR also fielded candidates in four other constituencies; Kyuk Taw-1, Minbya-1, Mrauk U -2 and Sittwe -2, and they gained an average of 17 per cent of the votes while the Government- backed National Unity Party got only 13 per cent.

Although the name of Rohingya was not permitted to use in the party title, the NDPHR was allowed to produce a booklet in Burmese called ‘Arakan and the Rohingya people: a short History’ on August 31, 1991. According to the NDPHR sources, the permission to print this booklet was rescinded two months later.

General Election held by SPDC in 2010

A general election was held in Burma (Myanmar) on 7 November 2010, in accordance with the new constitution. This constitution was approved in a referendum held in May 2008, which was held in the midst of Cyclone Nargis.

Since 2008, Brig-Gen Phone Swe, Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, was assigned for the assessment of North Arakan situation and to organize the peoples residing there for the constitutional referendum. Brig-Gen Phone Swe managed over whelming support from Rohingyas 2008 constitutional referendum to the satisfaction of the junta. They want the same support and cooperation from Rohingyas at the coming 2010 election with joining Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) a political affiliate of SPDC.

Brig-Gen Phone Swe, with constant contacting Rohingyas communities of both Rangoon and North Arakan, tried to study the ground reality, perception and mind set of entire Rohingya community of Arakan for two years. After convincing with over whelming support at the referendum from these peoples and managed to take a pro-Rohingya policy by the Junta. Not only Phone Swe, other high ranking SPDC officials also made frequent visits to this area and gave various kinds of promises to the Rohingya people.

In this regard, Let.Gen (Retd) Thein Sein, the then Prime Minister, accompanied by 12 ministers, a high power delegation was arrived in Buthidaung Township on 16 March 2010. There the Prime Minister held a meeting on that day where local government officers, USDA members, and Rakhine and Rhingya civil society’s members were attended. In this meeting the Prime Minister told that, “Rohingya living in Arakan State are citizens of Burma…Rohingya and government can work together for the betterment of Burmese people and development of the country….Rohingyas have been staying here and shall stay here no need to go anywhere. .. Rohingyas are majority in North Arakan and shall have legitimate rights to vote and to be elected.”

Convincing the promises of the Prime Minister, most of the Rohingya peoples of North Arakan decided to join USDA and participate to the forth coming election. A total of 37 political parties contested in this election, which included two Rohingya political parties also contested – – National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD) and National Democratic and Peace Party (NDPP). Some independent Rohingya candidates also contested in the election.

Out 33 Rohingya contested in the polls, 21 contested with NDPD ticket, 6 with USDP ticket, 3 with NDPP ticket and 3 independent candidates. U Htay Win (a) Zahidur Rahman with USDP ticket was elected for the Nationalities Parliament. U Aung Zaw Win (a) Zakir Hussain and U Shwe Maung (a) Abdu Razak both with USDP tickets were elected for the People’s Parliament. U Aung Myo Myint (a) Jahan Gir with USDP ticket, U Aung Myint (a) Zahiddullah and U Bashir Ahmed both with UNDP tickets were elected for the State Parliament. The Rohingyas of North Arakan were overwhelmingly gone to vote with average turnover of more than 90%.

In spite of the Rohingyas, being one of indigenous races of Burma, had enfranchised in all the national elections of Burma from later colonial period to present Then Sein regime, today they are knowingly and deliberately being branded as aliens. The government vehemently denies the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity, referring to the group, even in official documents, as “Bengali.” This stems from a pervasive belief that all Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

However, The USDP needs the votes of these people in upcoming referendum and election then they approved this Referendum Law of 2015 that allows white card holders to take part in a future referendum on amendments to the constitution.

Parliament’s recent decision, which was proposed by President Thein Sein, reconfirms the USDP’s intention to again grant the group voting rights.

The constitutional referendum has yet to be scheduled, but parliament’s decision also strengthens the chances that white card holders will be able to cast ballots in general elections later this year.

The prospect of the Rohingya being allowed to vote has alarmed nationalist monks and politicians who have threatened to hold mass protests next week to pressure parliament to reverse its decision.

Arakanese lawmakers and a group of opposition parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), are asking Burma’s Constitutional Tribunal to overturn a recent parliamentary decision to grant so-called white card holders the right to vote in a planned constitutional referendum.

Arakanese politicians are fiercely opposed to any legal recognition of the Muslim minority in northern Arakan State. They fear the Referendum Law will also allow the group the rights to vote in the general elections, scheduled for early November. Withholding Rohingya voting rights would boost the power of the Arakanese politicians, which otherwise dominate the state.

But, why did Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) opposing this decision. They knew that, the citizenship issue was a settled issue and the Muslims of Arakan who identify themselves Rohingya are citizens by birth. As they, their parents and their grandparents were born and bred in Burma and most of them were indigenous, under the sub clauses (i), (ii) and (iii) of Article 11, of 1947 Constitution of Union of Burma. These are fundamental rights of a citizen and the 1947 constitution provided safeguard for fundamental rights. Under this constitution, the people of Burma irrespective of ‘birth, religion, sex or race’ equally enjoyed all the citizenships rights including right to express, right to assemble, right to associations and unions, settle in any part of the Union, to acquire property and to follow any occupation, trade, business or profession.

I agree cent percent with Mr. Tha Aye, who accused protest organizers of attempting to create instability and disrupt democratic reforms and said that, they are comprised of racist politicians and ultranationalists. I do not think that NLD is such party. It is a party to which   all people of the country have faith on it. Everybody believes that it has vision, it has justice and it will honor all the rights of the people. It never tries to abuse the fundamental rights of any community.

Our earnest request to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other all the leaders of NLD, please do not oppose for the sake of opposition or opposing. Rohingyas never be illegal immigrants rather they are emigrants from Burma who are illegally staying in deferent parts of the world.

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