Burmese immigration authorities recently began the mammoth task of verifying the citizenship of Rakhine’s Muslim population in an effort to settle the explosive question.
While some Rohingya hold temporary registration cards that grant them the right to vote, but little else, citizenship revolves around a contentious 1982 law requiring proof that the past three generations of an applicant’s family have lived in Myanmar.
It is a touchy subject for Rohingya, many of whom lack any documentation, but insist that their ancestors were born and bred in the state.
The census is expected to continue until 2014, although it is still unclear whether Buddhist and Muslim communities will be expected to live together once more or will continue to be segregated. It is also unknown what will happen to those who are incapable of providing documentation.
Swire — who initially traveled to Myanmar to lead a trade delegation — said that “conditions [in Rakhine] remain extremely worrying” and stressed that without greater determination and urgent action, “this tragedy will continue to deepen for all concerned.”
To date, Aung San Suu Kyi — who is considered internationally as Myanmar’s most unifying political figure and who herself has previously stressed the significance of ethnic rights — has been largely absent from debates on the issue and it is unclear why she has not taken more of a lead role.
However, analysts largely believe that her reticence may stem from a political desire to maintain majority Burmses votes for her National League for Democracy party, particularly in the lead up to the 2015 presidential elections.
According to Swire, who briefly met Aung San Suu Kyi and raised the Rohingya issue, the Nobel laureate is prepared to help in the reconciliation process if invited by the Burmese government to do so.
“[Aung San Suu Kyi] herself has been very clear about this — she is extremely busy. She can’t do everything in this country,” Swire said. “If she is formally invited to get involved, she has indicated to me that she would be very willing to do that.”
With aid workers expecting Rakhine’s refugee camps to remain in place for at least another year, it seems many Rohingya are still at the mercy of the Burmese government and the few media and foreign dignitaries able to visit.
When one teary-eyed Rohingya man pleaded with Zaw Winn, telling him: “We are real Rohingya, please recognize us,” the minister looked at his colleague and laughed.
It is perhaps no surprise that, at the end of the tour of Pauktaw, a few brave Rohingya slipped handwritten letters into the hands of the delegation, including one to me that read: “We are real citizens of Burma ... We hope that you will save and rescue [us].”