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Myanmar’s Government in Exile and the Rohingya
On June 3, Myanmar’s government in exile, the National Unity Government (NUG), formed to oppose the military seizure of power following the February coup, introduced a new policy shift approach towards the Rohingya Muslims. Unequivocally, the policy, entitled “Policy Position on Rohingya in Rakhine State” stipulates, “In honor of human rights and human dignity and also to eradicate the conflicts and root causes in the Union, the NUG aims to build up a prosperous and federal democratic union where all ethnic groups belonging to the Union can live together peacefully.” The statement continues: “We invite [the] Rohingya to join hands with us and others to participate in the Spring Revolution against the military dictatorship in all possible ways.”
By drafting a new constitution, the policy statement adds, the NUG is committed to ensuring citizenship and fundamental rights of all ethnic groups, including the Rohingya. It also pledged to the voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh and other neighboring countries. Notably, the statement commits to revoking the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law – which is underpinned by a complex taxonomy of 135 national races, from which the Rohingya are excluded, and the National Verification Card – another legal mechanism to complicate Rohingya citizenship status. Instead, the NUG postulates that citizenship would be based on birth in Myanmar, or birth anywhere to a Myanmar citizen. Moreover, it pledged to pursue justice for atrocities committed against the Rohingya and granting the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over crimes committed within Myanmar.
A new twist with a monumental shift
In a significant development, this marks a policy change on the Rohingya issue by the NUG that did not include any Rohingya when it was formed in April. Indeed, it poses several questions about the credibility of the government when NUG visions about federal democracy, but excludes a community that has been living in Myanmar for centuries. To assuage international criticism, the recent policy statement briefs, “The entire people of Burma is sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya as all now experience atrocities and violence perpetrated by the military.”
To wit, therefore, the policy approach can be dubbed a new twist with [a] monumental shift. Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, welcomed the NUG’s shift. Tom Andrews said in a statement, “I am hopeful that today’s policy statement marks an initial, long-deserved though long-denied movement towards peace, justice, and security for the Rohingya, who have faced decades of discrimination and violence in Myanmar.”
True, the recent policy position of NUG is a watershed event in the political landscape of Myanmar. However, it is difficult to assess the credentials of the NUG’s policy statement because this shadow government in exile is made up largely of members of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which was complicit in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in 2017. The Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD government avoided even using the term Rohingya, instead, referring to the minority group as Muslims in Rakhine State. Aung San Suu Kyi even traveled abroad to defend the genocidal regime of Myanmar.
Nevertheless, the human rights group, Fortify Rights, applauded the NUG’s statement by referring to it as a monumental policy shift on Rohingya rights. However, as the exile government’s shadow cabinet does not include any Rohingya representatives, Humayun Kabir, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to the United States, wasn’t as welcoming. For Kabir, “Now, the NUG needs to formalize it and sign a written agreement with the Rohingya for the restoration of the civil and political rights of the Rohingya as well as their recognition as one of the legitimate ethnic groups of Myanmar.”
Since the NUG’s formation, the exclusionary legacy towards the Rohingya community has threatened to overshadow international support and foreign recognition for the NUG. Therefore, in this pretext, many observers assume the NUG’s clarification is clearly geared toward assuaging foreign doubts about its democratic credentials, garnering international support, and formal diplomatic recognition.
Rohingya welcome the policy shift warily
Whilst humanitarian groups and activists are welcoming the NUG’s monumental change in policy, the Rohingya are not. “The NUG must, crucially, recognize that genocide is taking place against the Rohingya,” said Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK. “If we can’t face the reality of the past, there is no way that we can build a common future,” he added.
Also, the NUG has drawn criticism for not explicitly acknowledging that Rohingya are indigenous to Myanmar, instead referring to them as Rohingya in Rakhine State. Accordingly, historian Thant Myint-U tweeted, “Important steps by NUG Myanmar including to repeal 1982 citizenship law. Preference would be to remove the entire notion of indigenity from official discourse. Buddhist idea that all things contingent and ever-changing and should apply to ethnicity in Myanmar as well.” Nevertheless, it goes without saying that the policy shift towards Rohingya ushers an important step forward, particularly when compared with the dogmatic stance of Myanmar’s military regime, which continues to label Rohingya as illegal immigrants.
The way ahead
Given the decades of bitterness between the majority Buddhists and the minority Rohingya Muslims, the NUG needs to offer more to earn the trust of the Rohingya. Therefore, the NUG needs to seek international justice for the Rohingya by legalizing the statement and uphold calls for international trials of Myanmar’s military junta to create an environment of trust and dignity.
In doing so, the shadow government must recognize some truths in their legal enshrinements. First and foremost, the civilian government in exile must recognize that the Rohingya are a legitimate ethnic group and rightful citizens of Myanmar. Secondly, the NUG should act on the call for international justice by recognizing that a genocidal injustice has taken place against Rohingya. Thirdly, to garner international support and trust among Rohingya, the NUG ought to waste no time incorporating a Rohingya representative in its shadow cabinet. Finally, the NUG must uphold a clear intent of safe and dignified repatriation of forcibly displaced Rohingya living in different parts of the world.
Atrocities suffered at the hands of Myanmar’s military regime and to garner international support for the NUG by upholding the cause of the Rohingya – appear to be behind this major shift in the NUG. The new approach by the NUG is certainly an important step to open a new window of opportunity for the NUG to build a common future for Myanmar.
Hassan Ahmed Shovon is an independent researcher. He graduated from the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka. He is interested in South Asian Politics, Security Affairs, Religious Extremism, Political Economy and International Development.