The Arakan State government has sought to dispel what it says were erroneous reports that it had returned a surplus 13 billion kyats (US$13 million) from the state budget to Burma’s central government.
During a meeting on Wednesday, the state’s Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn told Arakanese civil society groups, town elders and the media that those reports were based on a misunderstanding of state- versus Union-level appropriations in Burma’s second-poorest state.
Aung Mra Kyaw, an Arakan State lawmaker, said an Aug. 23 report from the state’s budget department listed 13 billion kyats out of 109 billion kyats allocated for the 2013-14 fiscal year’s total budget as “extra,” with the state revenue minister inaptly referring to the funds as having been “returned” to the Union government.
The report sparked widespread criticism in the impoverished state this week, apparently fueled by the inability of the Arakan revenue minister to explain the origins of the “extra” money when pressed by lawmakers.
“But on Wednesday, the director of budget/expenses came [to the state parliament] to explain about how it worked, after the whole country had heard about the situation,” Aung Mra Kyaw told The Irrawaddy.
The Arakan government representative noted on Wednesday that the initial fiscal report had led to confusion, and submitted an amended budget that made clear the money had not been “returned.”
Aung Mra Kyaw said lawmakers were told that while the last fiscal year’s total budget was 109 billion, Arakan ministries and departments were only allocated 96 billion. The “extra” 13 million kyats referred to projects in Arakan State that were under the jurisdiction of the Naypyidaw government.
“The chief minister said the money has still been used for Arakan State projects, under the control of the Union [government],” according to Than Htun, an Arakanese town elder in Sittwe who attended the meeting with the chief minister.
Than Htun said those in attendance on Wednesday were told that the state government was limited by law in the scale of projects it could pursue, citing as an example a prohibition against constructing bridges any longer than 150 feet. Larger projects are the purview of the Union-level government, it was explained.
“This year’s budget [198 billion kyats] is more than last year,” said Aung Mra Kyaw. “We do not want such confusion in the next financial report. So the ministries and the department heads in Arakan State should pay attention to their works.”
Since becoming chief minister on July 2, the former general Maung Maung Ohn has met frequently with different groups of politicians, lawmakers and civil society groups to update them on his government’s initiatives.
Maung Maung Ohn on Wednesday said Arakan State had made progress more than two years after communal violence tore through the state, but added that his government was taking precautions to ensure continued stability, according to Than Htay.
Than Htay said the public was updated on a “citizenship scrutiny” pilot project underway in the state’s Myebon Township, an effort to resolve the controversial question of citizenship for Burma’s stateless Rohingya Muslims.
The pilot began in June and is based on Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law. In order to be eligible for citizenship, state officials are requiring Rohingya Muslims to identify themselves as “Bengali,” the government’s term for the group, which implies that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
It appears the Muslims—many of whom trace their Burma roots back generations and prefer to self-identify as Rohingya—will not have the chief minister’s blessing if they should choose not to cooperate in the citizenship scrutiny process.
“If the Muslims there continue to call themselves ‘Rohingya,’ there is nothing more to talk about,” Maung Maung Ohn was quoted as saying on Wednesday. “But if they perceive themselves as Bengalis, as they are, and seek citizenship, they could be considered under the Citizenship Law. … It will only lead to bad impacts if they stay outside the law.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, Maung Maung Ohn also reassured attendees that any resettlement program for displaced Muslims in Arakan State would not proceed without consultation with local Arakanese Buddhists.
Two bouts of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 forced about 140,000 people from their homes in Arakan State. Most of the victims were Rohingya who have lived in squalid camps, primarily on the outskirts of the state capital Sittwe, ever since.