Govt Recommends 31 Muslims in Arakan State for Citizenship

By Moe Myint 18 August 2016

RANGOON — Thirty-one Muslims who applied as “Bengali” have been recommended for citizenship by a verification committee in Buthidaung Township of northern Arakan State, the head of the immigration department for Maungdaw District Than Shwe told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.

This has already prompted fury from local Buddhist Arakanese, who launched a poster campaign on Wednesday.

Than Shwe said that only “two or three” had been recommended for “full” citizenship; the remainder were recommended for “naturalized” citizenship. Their applications have been passed to the state-level committee on citizenship verification, which will make the final decisions on eligibility.

The 1982 Citizenship Law outlines three tiers of citizenship, with diminishing rights: full, naturalized and associate. Those holding the latter two categories are denied certain rights, including the right to be elected to political office. They are also vulnerable to having their citizenship revoked by the government under vague pretexts, including “showing disaffection or disloyalty to the state.”

However, most of the more than 1 million Muslims in Arakan State that identify as Rohingya—around a third of the state’s population, and forming the large majority in the northern two townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung—are denied any form of citizenship. Buddhist Arakanese insist that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and refer to them as “Bengali.” The 1982 law places significant barriers to citizenship for those, such as the Rohingya, who are excluded from the list of 135 officially recognized ethnicities.

After anti-Muslim violence wracked the state in 2012 and 2013, an “Action Plan” for Arakan State was introduced in 2014 under former President Thein Sein. Included was a citizenship verification drive aimed at stateless Muslims in Arakan State—some of whom have other ethnic affiliations, such as the Kaman, an officially recognized group. A significant catch was that those identifying as Rohingya would be compelled to state their ethnicity as “Bengali” in their application papers, or not be considered at all.

The drive has met delays due to anger from local Buddhist Arakanese. In the middle of last year, the applications of the 31 Muslims in Buthidaung Township were put on hold after protests from Arakanese locals. The new National League for Democracy government, installed in April, has chosen to push on with citizenship verification in June, as part of its “100-day plan.” It appears that the requirement to identify as “Bengali” has not been changed under the new government.

Than Shwe told The Irrawaddy, “We just recommended those who are eligible and will wait for the decision of the [state-level committee], which includes five ministers in the Arakan State government. We have no right to issue [citizenship] cards to them ourselves.”

Than Shwe confirmed that their recommendations had been delivered the previous week, and that all applicants had consented to identify in the documentation as “Bengali.”

News of the citizenship recommendations quickly reached the ears of the Buddhist Arakanese community. On Wednesday, about 400 Arakanese residents of Buthidaung gathered at the local Aye Zedi monastery and decided to launch a poster campaign against the recommendations. They also read out the names of those on the township verification committee and denounced them.

Local Buddhist Arakanese residents—who number a small minority in Buthidaung Township—put “For Sale” posters [pictured] at the front of their homes and businesses, to suggest that they would leave the township if ineligible “Bengalis” started being recognized as citizens, against what they felt was growing Muslim domination of northern Arakan State, which has led to a rise in land disputes and crime, they claim.

An Arakanese community organizer, Zaw Win, told The Irrawaddy over the phone that, if the committee had properly adhered to the 1982 Citizenship Law, there would be no objections from the “native” Arakanese community. He cited a grievance that two “respected men” from the local Arakanese community, who were included in the committee under the previous government, had not been been reinstated.

“We strongly condemn the erroneous action of the committee”, said Zaw Win, regarding the citizenship recommendations.

Arakan National Party secretary Tun Aung Kyaw told The Irrawaddy that the party had requested a meeting with the Arakan State government to discuss the objections from the Arakanese residents of Buthidaung, but had received no response as of Wednesday.

He said, “We basically agree with giving out naturalized or associate citizenship in accordance with the 1982 law, but the government should not restrict [recipients] to Arakan State, but give them freedom of movement, including freedom to travel to other parts of the country.”

He explained that the Arakanese community was advocating for strict adherence to the 1982 Citizenship Law because, if the government gave out citizenship “recklessly,” a large proportion of the state’s population would suddenly be given voting rights—causing the dominance of the Arakan National Party to “disappear.”

“Think about what would be happen if one million people got the right to vote in this state. We are deeply concerned about it,” said Tun Aung Kyaw.

The majority of Muslim residents of Arakan State that are without citizenship were barred from voting in the 2015 general election, although these communities participated in all previous elections in Burma, including as “temporary” citizens. Naturalized and associate citizens still retain the right to vote.