The International Observatory on Statelessness


There are at least three groups of stateless persons originating in Burma, the Rohingya (see also Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Japan); native born but non-indigenous people, such as Indians; as well as children born in Thailand of Burmese parents.

The Rohingya are Muslims who reside in the northern parts of the Rakhine (historically known as Arakan) State, a geographically isolated area in western Burma, bordering Bangladesh. The British annexed the region after an 1824-26 conflict and encouraged migration from India. Since independence in 1948, successive Burmese governments have considered these migration flows as illegal. Claiming that the Rohingya are in fact Bengalis, they have refused to recognize them as citizens. Shortly after General Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) seized power in 1962, the military government began to dissolve Rohingya social and political organizations. The 1974 Emergency Immigration Act stripped Burmese nationality from the Rohingya. In 1977, Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) constituted a national effort to register citizens and screen out foreigners prior to a national census.

The resulting military campaign led to widespread killings, rape, and destruction of mosques and religious persecution. By 1978, more than 200,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh. The Burmese authorities claimed that their flight served as proof of the Rohingya’s illegal status in Burma.

Under the 1982 Citizenship Law, Rohingya were declared “non-national” or “foreign residents.” This law designated three categories of citizens: (1) full citizens, (2) associate citizens, and (3) naturalized citizens.

None of the categories applies to the Rohingya as they are not recognized as one of the 135 “national races” by the Myanmar government. More than 700,000 Rohingya in northern Rakhine today are effectively stateless and denied basic human rights.

An unknown number of Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) are stateless, though at least half a million could be affected. Thousands have been living in Burma for over four generations, not belonging to India or Burma. The last official census in Burma held in 1983 reported approximately 428,000 persons of Indian origin in Burma. The current population is estimated to be about 600,000, but according to the Indian government, as many as 2.5 million PIOs could be living in Burma. Only about 2,000 hold Indian passports. Although they have lived in Burma for more than four generations, they lack documentation required by the 1982 Burmese citizenship law and are therefore stateless. They cannot travel outside the country and face low economic status.

The Burmese government refuses to give citizenship to children born outside the country to Burmese parents who left illegally or fled persecution. Children born in Thailand of Burmese descent do not have birth certificates and the parents do no have citizenship papers. Neither recognized by the Burmese government nor wanted by the Thai government, many of the roughly two million Burmese migrant workers and 150,000 Burmese refugees are effectively stateless as a result of not having citizenship documentation, and face lives of desperation.