The denial of citizenship to the Rohingya people is one of the foundation stones which underpins prejudice and violence against the Rohingya. By denying Rohingya citizenship, the government is officially saying that they are foreign to Burma, and do not belong in the country. In the mind of many in Burma this in turn justifies prejudice against them, and for some, even justifies the most horrific human rights violations. Challenging prejudice and changing attitudes may take generations to address but this process cannot begin until the citizenship issue is addressed. The single most important step the government of Burma can take to begin a process of ensuring safe return for Rohingya is to reform or replace the 1982 Citizenship Law and give citizenship to all Rohingya.
Rather than insisting on this, the international community has now returned to compromise language about ‘pathways to citizenship’ for the Rohingya.
There is no time left for this approach. In practice there may now only be a window of 12-18 months where the Rohingya citizenship issue could finally be addressed. After this time, the election cycle and political changes in the country may mean there will never again be the opportunity that exists right now.
Aung San Suu Kyi is probably at the peak of her powers. She won the last election with a huge landslide. As State Counsellor she is the most powerful person in the NLD-led government. Government Ministers are afraid to act within their portfolios without specific instructions from her. NLD MPs in Parliament are unable or unwilling to challenge to criticise government policies. She has an iron grip over her Ministers, her MPs and the NLD, the most popular political party in the country. Her reputation has fallen internationally, but within Burma she has not just the respect but also the trust and love of a huge number of people. She enjoys a level of admiration politicians in others countries can only dream of.
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