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Citizenship program reinforces divisions in Rakhine State

(Photo: The Myanmar Times)

By Bill O’Toole
June 27, 2014

Third time lucky or doomed to fail? That's the question observers of Rakhine State are asking after the Ministry of Immigration on June 15 launched its latest program - "citizenship verification" - aimed at encouraging Muslims in Rakhine State to register for some citizenship rights.

The proviso is that they list their ethnicity as "Bengali" rather than "Rohingya", and the program is reinforcing the already clear divisions over the issue, both within the state and more broadly.

While the program is being touted by the government as the first step for thousands of Muslims living in Rakhine to obtain limited citizenship rights, the perception among at least some Muslims in Rakhine is that accepting the Bengali tag will take them further away from the prospect of citizenship because, they argue, it suggests they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

But some are still likely to take up the government's offer, just as some Muslim households in Rakhine State agreed to participate in the census without listing their ethnicity as Rohingya.

Speaking to The Myanmar Times from a registration center in Myebon township on June 26, a Ministry of Immigration spokesperson said more than one-sixth of the 3000 Muslims in the Myebon area had applied to register. The figure could not be independently confirmed last week.

The spokesperson said there would be no compromise on the question of ethnicity.

"They need to accept that they are Bengalis," he said. "If they didn't accept themselves as Bengalis they can't make the [citizenship verification] registration."

This is not the first time the ministry has attempted such a program. Previous efforts, in November 2012 and then one year later, just before the SEA Games, stalled because Muslim communities refused to cooperate, the spokesperson said.

A number of Muslims in Rakhine told The Myanmar Times that they did not expect this year to be any different.

"People here always refuse to be registered" as Bengali, said a Muslim community organiser in Sittwe.

"After two years of crisis I have no trust in the government," said U Aung Win, a Muslim activist based in Sittwe. "They will never give us full citizen rights."

U Khin Maung Myint, a member of the National Democratic Party for Development, a political party that describes itself as representing the Rohingya, expressed a similar sentiment.

"They're trying to make every Rohingya in Rakhine State into an illegal immigrant," he said. "It has nothing to do with citizenship."

U Khin Maung Myint, who is based in Yangon, said he and other Muslim civil society groups have been warning the Ministry of Immigration that the citizenship verification program is flawed since the first attempt in 2012. He said it is "wrong" that Bengali is the only ethnicity offered.

"We told [The Ministry of Immigration] that the form is wrong from the very beginning, our people do not want to participate."

Several observers, including U Khin Maung Myint, said the process will only make the already tense situation in the state worse.

"The authorities are essentially coercing the Rohingya to identify as Bengali, hanging access to citizenship over their heads, and it's bound to backfire" said Matthew Smith, executive director of the Thailand-based human rights group Fortify Rights. "This process contributes to a broader variety of abuses that are either destroying Rohingya or driving them to flee the country in droves."

However, Rakhine groups say the program is crucial for bringing peace and stability to the state. "It's a necessity. Because it is the government's obligation to implement 1982 Citizenship Law, I support their implementation," said U Aye Maung, a parliamentarian from the Rakhine National Party. "[All of] the Bengali community should listen."

But given the other pressing issues in Rakhine - from border security to the future of IDPs and efforts to reduce ethnic tensions - some question whether it is the right time to press the citizenship question, particularly when many Muslims are so opposed to it.

U Khin Maung Myint described the program as "a waste of time".

"We would like to engage in practical issues," he said, "not fictional ones."

Additional reporting by Nandar Aung and Ye Mon.

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