RANGOON —Arakanese Buddhists in Myebon Township held a silent protest on Monday to express their displeasure over the government’s decision to award degrees of citizenship to 209 displaced Muslims in the area, according to Arakanese politicians.
Khin Maung Gyi, who is a central committee member from Arakan National Party, said local Arakanese residents held a protest to send a message to Arakan Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn who attended the ceremony to grant citizenship to the Muslims on Monday.
“All our people held a protest in the town during his trip. It was a silent protest. They closed all their doors and no one went out onto the street,” he said.
The Arakanese Buddhist population has been in embroiled in a violent communal conflict with the state’s Rohingya Muslim minority, some 140,000 of who have been displaced by violence since 2012.
“From my personal point of view, I do not agree with the ongoing national verification process. I could not trust their actions,” Khin Maung Gyi said.
“There are Bengalis among the Kaman [Muslims]. Bengalis got citizenship in the past by fraud. Our community leaders asked the government to check them carefully, but the government did not listen to the voices of our community leaders.”
The ceremony on Monday granted 40 Muslims citizenship, while 169 received naturalized citizenship, said Khin Soe, an officer at the Immigration Department in the Arakan State capital Sittwe. Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law offers degrees of citizenship rights to three categories: citizens, associate citizens and naturalized citizens.
Khin Soe said the 40 Muslims citizens are “free to travel like anyone.” Asked about the rights of the 169 naturalized citizens, he referred to the 1982 law’s Article 53, a clause which sets broadly defined conditions for the state to revoke naturalized citizenship.
He said there were “some Kaman” Muslims among the new citizens, while “most were Bengalis.” Khin Soe added that 1,094 people are currently taking part in the national verification process and more could receive citizenship soon.
The Kaman are a Muslim minority recognized as citizens under the 1982 law, but this controversial law drawn up by the then-military government fails to recognize the approximately 1 million Rohingya Muslims living in northern Arakan State as an ethnic group of Burma.
The law renders the group stateless, leaving them vulnerable to human rights violations and putting a range of restrictions on them, such as restrictions of movement and limited access to government services such as health care and education.
The Rohingya claim they have lived in northern Arakan State for generations and should have citizenship rights, but the government insists that they are illegal “Bengali” immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Citizenship Through Nationality Verification
The awarding of citizenship to the Muslims in Myebon is the outcome of the government’s nationality verification process, an operation started last year that is surrounded by a dearth of information.
The process involves groups of local officials, immigration officers and armed police entering into Muslim-majority communities and camps for displaced Muslims in northern Arakan and asking families for identity papers and those of their forebears. If residents refuse to accept the term Bengali on the verification forms, the procedure will be broken off.
“Our immigration officers first check those who provided us with documents about whether they were born here, and whether their parents are born here,” said Khin Soe, the immigration officer. “We check the documents and then we pass it to the township authority. And then, the central government is the main authority that grants citizenship.”
Most of the Muslim minority in northern Arakan maintains they are called Rohingya. During the UN-funded population census in March and April census teams skipped all households that refused to accept ethnic classification as Bengali and an estimated 1 million Muslims were not included.
The international community has long pressured the Burmese government into resolving the statelessness of the Rohingya and it appears Naypyidaw wants to address the issue through the national verification process, even though it—much like the census—is likely to leave out most of the Rohingya.
Aung Win, a Rohingya rights activist and community leader from Sittwe’s Muslim quarter Aung Mingalar, said it was unclear whether Rohingya could obtain full citizenship rights under the nationality verification process.
“I do not like this process because there is no transparency. For example, other countries offer citizenship after a person stays for 10 years in the country. But how long our people have to wait for [citizenship], they [authorities] do not tell us,” he said.
Aung Win said he had little hope that the process would offer a permanent solution for the group’s statelessness, not least because most Rohingya would resist being registered as Bengali.
Hla Myint, a Muslim resident from Myebon, was among the 40 who received citizenship. He said he considered himself a Rohingya but had registered as Bengali in order to obtain citizenship.
“I put Bengali on the verification form… Those who got full citizenship may travel, and those who got naturalized citizenship may have business opportunities,” he said. “Regarding this national verification process, I think that it is a good opportunity for us.”
According to Hla Myint, some 3,000 displaced Muslims in Myebon had applied for citizenship through the national verification process, but many failed to obtain it because they had lost their identity documents during the inter-communal violence, while some refused to register as “Bengalis.”