RANGOON — Burma’s government has resumed a process of verifying the citizenship status of some members of a minority group in the country’s west known internationally as the Rohingya.
In late 2012, on the heels of sectarian violence between Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists that left about 120,000 people displaced, government immigration officials began verifying the citizenship of Muslims in limited parts of Arakan State. It appears the process stalled last year, amid resistance to requirements that the Rohingya identify as Bengali.
The government refers to the Rohingya as Bengali, suggesting that they came to the country illegally from Bangladesh, though many trace their family roots back to Burma for generations.
Now, immigration officials have restarted their verification process in parts of Arakan State where most Rohingyas agreed to identify as Bengali two months ago during the nationwide census, after being told that they would not be counted if they did not identify this way.
As a pilot project in Myebon Township, immigration officials are accepting citizenship applications from anyone who identifies as Bengali, according to Maung Maung Than, director-general of the Department of Immigration and National Registration.
About 3,042 Muslims live in the township, the department says. Of these, 47 people have already applied for citizenship, according to Maung Maung Than, who added that applications would be considered according to the 1982 Citizenship Law.
The law has been criticized internationally for making it nearly impossible for the Rohingya to receive citizenship.
“The applicants will need to show the citizenship cards of their grandparents or parents, or at least family registration so we can check whether he or she is a citizen or not,” Maung Maung Than told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
Later, he said, immigration officials will check the identification papers of all Bengalis in the township. In cases where the paperwork may have been falsified, the central government will make a decision and take action according to the 1982 Citizenship Law, which prescribes a fine or jail time for anyone found to be in possession of false identification.
The verification process will later be expanded, but only to townships where people identified as Bengalis in the census, Maung Maung Than said.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported that national ministers met in the Arakan State capital of Sittwe on Friday with state-level officials, town leaders and civil society representatives. The ministers explained “matters concerning the scrutinizing of citizenship for Bengalis under the Myanmar Citizenship Law of 1982,” the newspaper reported, adding that a preliminary survey had already begun at “a Bengali relief camp in Myebon.”
Last week Immigration Minister Khin Yi visited Arakan State along with the information minister, the minister of border affairs and national races, and President’s Office ministers, the newspaper reported.
About 1 million Rohingya people are believed to live in Arakan State, where they face government-imposed restrictions that make it nearly impossible for them to access health care, education and other basic services. A majority of victims from the 2012 violence were Rohingya, and today they continue to live in squalid camps for internally displaced people (IDPs).
The Arakan National Party, representing Arakanese Buddhists, has called on the government to verify the citizenship of Muslims in Arakan State since 2012, according to Khin Maung Gyi, a member of the party’s central executive committee.
“It is necessary that decisions are made correctly on every stage of the citizenship scrutiny process, without any bribes,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Mohamed Salim, a Rohingya spokesman for the National Development and Peace Party in Rangoon, criticized the verification process as biased.
“We do not accept the term ‘Bengalis.’ The Muslim people in Arakan State are Rohingya,” he told The Irrawaddy. “If they want to conduct an examination based on the 1982 law, they need to first amend the law in accordance with international standards, since it currently includes much discrimination, and after that they can exam us.”