Burma's Religious Minister not Rebuked for Describing Muslims as "Associate Citizens"
  • Tue, 04/19/2016
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April 19, 2016

Burma's Minister of Religious Affairs, Aung Ko, made a statement declaring that Muslims are not full citizens and went on to visit firebrand monk Wirathu. He has not been criticised or rebuked by the democratically-elected government in any way.

In an interview earlier this month with the Voice of America Burma Service, Aung Ko stated that Muslims are “associate citizens,” while Buddhists are full citizens.

Minister Aung Ko is a member of the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, but he is also a cabinet member of the newly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government, led by the internationally celebrated Nobel Peace Prize recipient and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

Given the landslide victory of the NLD during the election and the overwhelming majority it now enjoys in Parliament, Minister Aung Ko's conduct reflects badly on the NLD and its leader, especially since they have remained silent about his remarks.

Many supporters of Burmese Muslims have been demanding the resignation of Minister of Religion Aung Ko for his inflammatory remark or that he clarify his statement.

The Constitution of Myanmar makes no mention of “associate citizenship”.

The document that does refer to this idea is the highly contentious 1982 citizenship or “nationalities” law. The law excludes Rohingya, a community indigenous to Rakhine state, from the list of 135 ethnicities, and thus excluding them from citizenship. It furthermore outlines a model of tiered citizenship, distinguishing between “full citizens,” “associate citizens,” and “naturalized citizenship.”

To qualify for full citizenship, you need to be a descendant of residents who lived in Burma prior to the British colonial takeover of 1823 or were born to parents who were full citizens at the time of birth.

The stratified citizenship and statelessness of the Rohingya goes against international norms and standards.

The Minister of Religion went on to say that religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus and Muslims, had not been “deliberately oppressed.”

Many studies and reports show the opposite. Studies from Yale Law School and Queen Mary University of London conclude that oppression is in fact state sanctioned. Furthermore, there is a lot of photographic material showing for instance extremists walking from burning villages in Rakhine while soldiers are standing by.

Furthermore, Minister Aung Ko visited Wirathu and other members of the blacklisted anti-Islamic organization Ma Ba Tha a few days later.

Initially, the NLD governments seemed like it was going to submit a proposal to Parliament expressing concern about his comments.

However, as a NLD Parliamentarian stated in an interview with the Myanmar Times, “We don’t want to highlight it – things like this can happen sometimes unintentionally.”

NLD spokesperson U Win Htein said there was no reason to be “anxious” about the meeting between Minister Aung Ko and Wirathu: “I think Thura U Aung Ko seemed to be admonishing U Wirathu.” This, however, seems unlikely and contradicts the words of Tun Nyunt, director of the Religious Affairs and Culture Minister who joined the minister on his trip. He said the visit was “routine”, adding that he went for “introductions.”

Sources:

Frits Sollewijn Gelpke, "Media Continues to Ignore Burma’s Religious Minister’s Anti-Muslim Actions" The Chicago Monitor April 19, 2016

Tauseef Akbar, "New Burma Religious Affairs Minister Calls Muslims Not Full Citizens" The Chicago Monitor April 7, 2016