The President's statement was a response to a direct question from David Mepham, UK Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) asking if there were any plans to revise the 1982 Citizenship Law, which currently denies full citizenship to the Rohingya Muslim people. Mepham also asked: “Are you going to bring justice for those people who are responsible for the terrible violence against the Rohingya muslims in June and October, in particular last year?”
Thein Sein responded:“To use the term Rohingya, in our ethnic history we do not have the term Rohingya.”
He added: “During the colonial administration there was a migration of economic migrants from other countries into the Rakhine state to work on the lands...So they grew their crops and then they did the harvest and then they went back home. But later on they decided to settle in the region. During the colonial administration there were 50,000 muslims in that region...now we have 800,000 muslim population in the region. That of course caused a lot of tension.”
Following the President's response, David Mepham told Weekly Zaman: "Human Rights Watch is very disappointed that Thein Sein refused to commit to amending or revoking the 1982 citizenship law, that effectively denies citizenship to the Rohingya and other Muslim communities. He also failed to announce any action for bringing to justice those responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Arakan State."
“We think that the 1982 citizenship law is clearly not in line with international human rights standards and that it should be revised.” He added
Despite no proposals to amend the citizenship law, Thein Sein stressed that his government would punish those involved in the violence: “In relation to all the riots and all the violence, we will be taking action against those people who perpetrated those violent acts. We have punished and we have fined and we have imprisoned people that have been involved in these incidents.”
In April this year the European Union (EU) lifted sanctions on Myanmar as a response to the positive progress the country has made towards democracy. The decision provoked a mixed reaction, with some human rights groups suggesting it was too soon to lift sanctions. Earlier this year, the International Crisis Group (ICG) awarded President Thein Sein its ‘in Pursuit of Peace Award”.
In the same week that the EU decided to lift sanctions on Myanmar, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a damning report that accused the government and authorities in Myanmar of being directly involved in the outbreaks of violence, which resulted in the destruction of mosques, property and killings in Rohingya Muslim communities, in Rakhine state. The report outlined the effects of the violence in the Rakhine state last year and claimed that violence towards the Rohingya people was “systematic”.
The failure to give citizenship to the Rohingya Muslims has raised concerns from a number of human rights organisations including UNHCR.
The British government, who hosted President Thein Sein, have welcomed the President's pledge to release all political prisoners by 2013.
A handful of protesters gathered outside Chatham House holding placards reading: “war criminal”. One protester told Weekly Zaman: “We are here to protest against Mr. Thein Sein who has been praised as a reformer by the international community, but actually he is a war criminal...Under his command in Eastern Burma there are killing of civilians and rape and ethnic cleansings and he shouldn't be rewarded by the British government.”
According to official figures, in April this year, there are 115,000 registered displaced persons in the Rakhine region.