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Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a review of Burma’s controversial 1982 citizenship law, which renders the Muslim Rohingya stateless, during a trip to Japan this week.
Meeting with Burmese families in Tokyo on Monday, she said that the law needed to be revised in accordance with international standards. She added that everyone who is entitled to citizenship under the existing law must be given equal rights.
“We have to find out whether our citizenship law is fair or not; if it meets international standards, and based on the findings, if necessary, the [law] must be revised,” said Suu Kyi.
“There is discrimination among citizens in our country,” said Suu Kyi. “We should also determine if certain laws are a hindrance to equal rights among citizens in the country, and revise them if we can.”
Suu Kyi has faced growing international pressure to speak up for the stateless Rohingya minority, after two bloody clashes with Arakanese Buddhists in western Burma last year. It follows reports that expatriate Rohingyas were barred from meeting the democracy icon upon her arrival in Japan on Saturday.
The right to citizenship is enshrined under international human rights law, but many leading Burmese politicians have insisted that the 1982 legislation, which was drafted by the military junta, was thoroughly researched.
In an exclusive interview with DVB last month, President Thein Sein insisted that Burma had “no plan” to revise the legislation, which he claims was drafted with “input from experts”.
“I believe the law is meant to protect the country and the government has no plan to revise it,” he said, adding that it would ultimately be up to the parliament.
Under its current provisions, the 1982 law guarantees citizenship only for those who can prove that their family has lived in Burma for at least three generations. But many Rohingya, who have lived in limbo along the Bangladeshi border for generations, lack the necessary documentation and birth certificates to qualify.
Any amendment to the law is also likely to face significant parliamentary opposition.
Thein Nyunt, chairperson of the New National Democracy Party, insisted that the law should not be revised at this time and criticised Suu Kyi for raising the issue abroad rather than in parliament.
“The citizenship law is intended to protect our race; by not allowing those with mixed blood from making political decisions [for the country], so the law is very important for the preservation of our country,” he said.
“If one wants to change the law, then the idea should be proposed in the Lower House with coherent reasons for discussion.”
In November last year, a representative from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) submitted a proposal to revise the 1982 Citizenship Law but it was “put on record”, meaning that it was indefinitely postponed.
The United Nation’s Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomas Quintana, recently called on the law to be revised, but faced an immediate backlash from parliamentarians and political parties who say the law is meant to protect Burma from “illegal immigrants”.
The Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 by former military dictator Ne Win, even though many have lived in the country for generations. They face routine discrimination, including restrictions on their right to travel and marry, and have been described by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.