Obama Centers (Rohingya) Citizenship in Burma
President Obama’s visit to Burma/Mynamar has centered the status of the country’s Muslim minority Rohingya community which has been denied Burmese citizenship notwithstanding their historical presence in the country. (The issue gets a lot more coverage in the Muslim world than in the West.) Obama’s speech today welcomed recent steps by the Burmese government “to address the issues of injustice and accountability, and humanitarian access and citizenship.” Obama then focused on citizenship at length:
Every nation struggles to define citizenship. America has had great debates about these issues, and those debates continue to this day, because we’re a nation of immigrants — people coming from every different part of the world. But what we’ve learned in the United States is that there are certain principles that are universal, apply to everybody no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter what religion you practice. The right of people to live without the threat that their families may be harmed or their homes may be burned simply because of who they are or where they come from.
Only the people of this country ultimately can define your union, can define what it means to be a citizen of this country. But I have confidence that as you do that you can draw on this diversity as a strength and not a weakness. Your country will be stronger because of many different cultures, but you have to seize that opportunity. You have to recognize that strength.
I say this because my own country and my own life have taught me the power of diversity. The United States of America is a nation of Christians and Jews, and Muslims and Buddhists, and Hindus and non-believers. Our story is shaped by every language; it’s enriched by every culture. We have people from every corners of the world. We’ve tasted the bitterness of civil war and segregation, but our history shows us that hatred in the human heart can recede; that the lines between races and tribes fade away. And what’s left is a simple truth: e pluribus unum — that’s what we say in America. Out of many, we are one nation and we are one people. And that truth has, time and again, made our union stronger. It has made our country stronger. It’s part of what has made America great.
We amended our Constitution to extend the democratic principles that we hold dear. And I stand before you today as President of the most powerful nation on Earth, but recognizing that once the color of my skin would have denied me the right to vote. And so that should give you some sense that if our country can transcend its differences, then yours can, too. Every human being within these borders is a part of your nation’s story, and you should embrace that. That’s not a source of weakness, that’s a source of strength — if you recognize it.
He concluded: “we have an expression in the United States that the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen — not President, not Speaker, but citizen.” (Though it got lost in the campaign, this picks up on Obama’s Democratic National Convention acceptance speech, which also included citizenship as a refrain.)
There is a very territorialist approach here (“every human being within these borders”), not so surprising out of the super-strong American tradition of jus soli. That’s also consistent with an emerging international law perspective on these questions, which sees habitual residence as giving rise to a right of access to citizenship. The Rohingya situation in Burma is exceptional in rejecting this norm (the Bedoons in Kuwait and Nubians in Kenya are other examples).
But Obama didn’t seem quite willing to turn to international law as the source of an obligation on this score. “Only the people of this country ultimately can define your union, can define what it means to be a citizen of this country.” That’s out of the old playbook in which nationality is a matter ultimately of sovereign discretion. He was more in a “leading by example” posture than a tougher one under which Burma has no choice but to fall in line. Leave the latter argument to the human rights heavyweights.