Over half a century since making a name for themselves as courageous fighters in the Burmese army, the ethnic Gurkha people of Burma say they have been forgotten by the former regime and current reformist government, which continues to deny them citizenship.
An estimated 300,000 Gurkhas live in Burma today, tracing their ethnic roots to Nepal, although most have relatives who migrated to Burma in the nineteenth century.
Under British rule, a Gurkha brigade fought as an elite force in Burma during World War II, winning nearly half the medals for bravery that were awarded to the colonial army. Gurkha soldiers also fought as allies alongside Burmese freedom fighters to achieve independence from the British in 1948, at which time they joined the infant Burmese army. They were considered key assets for the military during the new republic’s campaigns against ethnic insurgents.
In the 1947 Constitution, which was used from the beginning of the country’s independence, Gurkhas were granted full rights as Burmese citizens. But after a military dictatorship came to power, the Gurkhas were not classified as one of the country’s official ethnic groups, and as a result they faced restrictions that prevented them from retaining or applying for citizenship.
“Our people protected the sovereignty of the country,” says Chabi Narayan, a 72-year-old Gurkha leader in Myitkyina, Kachin State, where many Gurkhas continue to live today. “After the Constitution was amended [under the former military regime], many of our people resigned from the army because they felt there was no further benefit to serving.”
The 72-year-old says Gurkhas continue to face discrimination today. They cannot form political parties or vote if they are not citizens, nor can they travel outside the country.
And discrimination begins early, Gurkha leaders say, with Gurkha youths being turned away from schools if their citizenship applications are not approved.
“Our children are sad when their applications are rejected, while other ethnic children who were their classmates have citizenship and can attend school,” says 60-year-old Ang Khar Yang, also from Myitkyina.
Gurkhas live throughout Burma, including in Kachin, Chin and Shan states, as well as Rangoon and Mandalay divisions. They form a large minority in Myitkyina as well as the hill station of Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin) in Mandalay Division. Most practice Hinduism or Buddhism.
“We feel that we have been forgotten, although many of our men served important positions in the army for the country,” Chabi Narayan says. “We feel that this government has discriminated against us like Kalar,” he adds, using a derogatory name for Muslims.
Since the reformist government came to power in 2011, Buddhist-majority Burma has been criticized internationally for ongoing violence and discrimination against Muslims, particularly Rohingya Muslims in the country’s west. Rohingyas are widely seen in Burma as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, and they have been largely denied citizenship, although many also trace their family roots back to Burma for generations.
During the country’s nationwide census last month, the Gurkhas, like the Rohingyas, say they faced pressure to respond a certain way to questions about their ethnicity. While Rohingyas were only counted in the census if they identified as Bengali, Gurkhas say they were encouraged to identify as Nepali.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which assisted the Burmese government with the census, says Gurkhas were allowed to choose an “other” category and identify as Gurkha.
But Gurkhas in Myitkyina say otherwise.
“We were not born in Nepal, and we cannot read the Nepali language. We were born in this country,” says Chabi Narayan. “We are not Nepali, but they forced us to identify as such in the census. They [the government] wants to erase our ethnicity.”