Screening of ‘Bengali’ Citizenship Bids Begins in Arakan State

By Lawi Weng 7 August 2014

RANGOON — The local government in Arakan State’s Myebon Township has begun examining the citizenship applications of nearly 1,100 residents who have self-identified as “Bengalis” under a controversial pilot program covering Muslims in the state known internationally as Rohingya.

Khin Soe, an immigration officer who participated in the screening process, told The Irrawaddy that the vetting began on Tuesday and had processed 34 people in its first three days.

“Our committee members are checking them. This is to gain citizenship,” Khin Soe said on Thursday, adding that the screening was an initial, township-level stage in which applicants were asked to present evidence of ancestral lineage in Burma.

The township committee tasked with screening applicants will forward its findings to the state government, which will in turn submit recommendations to the central government.

The basis for the decision will be Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which designates three categories of citizenship: full, associate and naturalized.

“Our immigration will issue identity cards to the people based on the decision of the central government on who will be granted citizenship,” Khin Soe said.

Hla Myint, a Muslim in Myebon whose preferred self-identification is Rohingya, said he had nonetheless applied for citizenship as a “Bengali.”

“I went to the checking because I do not want to have any problems with them. Indeed, we are not Bengali, but they forced us to accept it,” said Hla Myint, who added that he was born in Myebon.

Estimated to number around 1 million, Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State face systematic discrimination, including the Burmese government’s refusal to recognize their preferred term of self-identification. Earlier this year, the government declined to count any people self-identifying as Rohingya in a nationwide census.

Like the census, the Myebon pilot program has also required these Muslims to identify as Bengali in order to have their citizenship application considered.

There were 1,094 “Bengali” Muslims in Myebon Township who had applied for citizenship, according to Khin Soe, who said that the committee would continue to accept applications. The local government began taking applications in June.

Hla Myint, a father of six who said his own father had served as a civil servant in Rangoon, estimated that about half of Myebon’s Muslim population had not applied under the pilot citizenship verification program.

“There were two Arakanese community leaders who observed the checking. If we can provide credible facts, they told us that we will become citizens,” said Hla Myint, who added that some were expected to be granted full citizenship, while others were likely to get only one of the lesser forms of recognition.

The government has said it intends to expand the citizenship verification program to other townships in Arakan State where Rohingya Muslims reside.

Arakan State was the scene of deadly communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. More than 140,000 people were displaced from their homes, the majority of them being Rohingya Muslims who continue to live in camps outside the state capital, Sittwe.