Asked whether the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in Myanmar are considered Myanmar nationals, Nobel Peace laureate and parliamentary candidate Aung San Suu Kyi replied, “I do not know. We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.”
In an effort to provide such clarity, this reporter met with a Myanmar Interior Ministry official to get some answers:
BW: In most countries, persons born in country to parents who have no known ancestry elsewhere are considered citizens. How is this applied in the case of the Rohingya?
IM: Thank you for giving us the opportunity to explain. We call them “resident foreigners”. After trying for many years to show that they are really from neighboring countries, we finally have decided that they are most likely Swiss nationals that came to Myanmar and lost their passports. Unfortunately, their birth records appear to have been lost in an avalanche in Switzerland and so we cannot prove their origin. However, we are negotiating with Switzerland to repatriate them.
BW: Are there possibly other reasons that you hesitate to grant citizenship to Rohingyas?
IM: In many countries, illegal immigrants often work for slave wages and are treated like animals. Rohingyas are often enslaved in Myanmar, and forced to live in the most deplorable conditions. We therefore suspect that they may be illegal immigrants.
BW: Illegal immigrants from where? Where do they belong?
The Rohingya Muslims are a demographic bomb for Myanmar. We want to remain Buddhist and democratic…
IM: I told you. They’re Swiss. And besides, they’re Muslim. The Rohingya Muslims are a demographic bomb for Myanmar. We want to remain Buddhist and democratic, and Muslim Rohingyas are a threat to our existence. Muslim self-determination has been expressed in dozens of countries. Why don’t the Muslim countries take them? They don’t belong here.
BW: But won’t you be accused of apartheid if you deny them citizenship on the basis of their ethnicity and religion?
IM: We’re not worried. Israel gets accused of the same, and how seriously does anyone take such accusations?
BW: But isn’t it more than that? Aren’t Rohingya homes and villages being demolished and the people being slaughtered and made refugees?
IM: Like I said, Israel…
BW: OK, OK. But Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t say for sure that Rohingyas are not entitled to Myanmar citizenship, only that we have to be clear about it. Isn’t she leaving open the possibility that they should be considered Myanmar citizens?
IM: Ms. Suu Kyi is a very rare creature: a politician with a humanitarian reputation and even a Nobel Peace Prize. She has to equivocate on Rohingyan rights. However, we are confident that just like Nobel laureates Shimon Peres and Barack Obama, she will do the right thing and overlook injustice toward undesirable populations.