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In limbo: The stateless Indians of Myanmar

October 14, 2011 14:30 IST

A little-known issue that is rarely spoken of in public, but is invariably raised during India-Myanmar official discussions is about the status of the large number of Persons of Indian Origin living in Myanmar. Shubha Singh reports.

The majority of these people of Indian descent are stateless. PIOs living in Myanmar are mainly third or fourth generation descendants of Indian workers who went to Burma as it was then called, in the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century.

The Myanmar government began verifiying and granting of citizenship rights to these people a few years ago, but the process is a slow and time consuming.

The Indian government has been pressing the Myanmar authorities to hasten the process, so that a larger number of people in this category can call themselves citizens and the difficulties they face as a result of being stateless is mitigated.

These PIOs are labelled as 'foreigners' and 'non-citizens' and hence are not eligible for government jobs, military service and higher education, and cannot travel abroad as they do not have passports.

Most of them are farmers with a small number involved in petty businesses. Myanmar's population of 56 million has a diverse ethnic mix, with the majority Burman community forming almost two-thirds of the population.

The indigenous minorities such as Mon, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin Rohingyia and others form about 5 per cent while the ethnic Indian minority is about 2 per cent of the population of Myanmar.

There are no definite estimates of the size of the ethnic Indian population in Myanmar. According to the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Vishnu Prakash, "By various counts, something like a million people in Myanmar are of Indian origin."

However, the High Level Committee on the Indian Disapora report submitted in December 2001 had estimated that the total population of PIOs in Myanmar as 2.9 million, of which 2,000 were Indian citizens and 400,000 are stateless.

But more recent studies have placed the number of PIOs closer to one million.

A large number of the ethnic Indians are farmers in the Bago, Mon and Tanintharyi areas. Indians had dominated the economy, the civil services, and the professions in the country during the colonial period.

The post-Independence era of nationalisation of economic assets had forced an exodus of Indians from Rangoon and other towns. When the urban Indians were made to leave the country in the 1960s after a military coup, Indian farmers living in the rural areas were too poor to pay for their passage home to India.

Present day PIOs are descendants of those Indians. With no contact with India, many young PIOs married in the local communities and are no longer classified as ethnic Indians.         

Relations between India and Myanmar were practically non-existent for three decades after the military coup in 1962, when Myanmar went into a self-imposed isolation, cutting itself from a major part of the world.

India had supported the pro-democracy movement and backed opposition leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi after the National League for Democracy won the elections in 1990.

Myanmar dissidents found sanctuary in India after the military crackdown after the elections, but events on the ground made New Delhi initiate a pragmatic policy of constructive engagement with the military regime in Myanmar a few years later. 

A former diplomat, who is familiar with Myanmar, explained the slow pace of the granting citizenship in Myanmar, saying that countries in Southeast Asia "do things in their own time and through different stages."

 With a new civilian government in Myanmar that has a reforms agenda, the process of granting citizenship can be speeded up, he added.

Shubha Singh