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Pilot census lays groundwork for citizenship verification in Rakhine

By Lun Min Mang
Myanmar Times
June 10, 2016

Rakhine State immigration officials have launched a pilot project to verify the citizenship of residents in three Muslim-majority townships.

A resident of the Dar Paing IDP camp in Sittwe shows his receipt for a white card in May 2015. Photo: Naing Wynn Htoon / The Myanmar Times

The project, which began on June 7, is largely carrying on with the citizenship verification project the last government had launched to address the large stateless community.

Immigration officials are counting residents who had been handed light-blue “green cards” last year, and is providing the cards to those who qualify but lack them. The project is promising later scrutiny to determine citizenship eligibility, according to the process described by government officials.

Only the individuals who accept the light-blue cards are to then go through the township, state and Union-level verification processes, according to U Myint Kyaing, permanent secretary of the Immigration and Population Department.

He added that the program, which will adhere to the 1982 citizenship law, is part of the government’s 100-day plan.

“If we are unable to finish within 100 days, then we will consider a six-month plan. It is a pilot project and it is being done in Kyaukphyu, Myebon and Ponnagyun townships of Rakhine State,” he told The Myanmar Timesyesterday.

He said the government would extend the process to other townships if the pilot is successful.

The cards being given out during the simultaneous census do not include race or religion in a bid to avoid controversial terminology and inflaming sectarian conflict. The cards include an identification number, the name of the holder, the name of the holder’s father, and the holder’s gender, date of birth and marital status.

But the intention of avoiding conflict by skipping over race has already backfired. Radio Free Asia reported that a village in Ponnagyun refused the cards and would not provide information to immigration officials, citing the inability to self-identify as Rohingya.

The Myanmar Times could not independently confirm the report as most calls to state immigration officers went unanswered yesterday. Those who did pick up confirmed the census project but declined to comment.

The chair of the Arakan National Party, U Aye Maung, said he and the other party members are not paying close attention to the process, but he also declined to comment. In a proposal to parliament last month, ANP member Daw Khin Saw Wai urged the government to address what she referred to as a problem of increasing numbers of illegal immigrants in the state.

U Maung Maung Ohn, former Rakhine State chief minister and now Union Solidarity and Development Party state parliamentarian, said the government needs to convince the Muslim community that accepting and cooperating with the government’s plan will benefit them.

“When I was chief minister, I faced huge pressure and difficulty executing orders from above. [Rakhine and Muslim] communities have been too dogmatic to build trust,” he said.

In order for the citizenship project to succeed, he said, the government must convince the Muslim community that they will get full citizenship rights once they are verified.

The previous government revoked all temporary identity cards – known as “white cards” – held by stateless Muslims and other ethnic groups in 2015. Acting on a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal, parliament alsodisenfranchised all potential white-card voters, who had previously been allowed to cast ballots in 2010 and in the 2012 by-elections.

More than 300,000 Muslims in Rakhine State out of an estimated 800,000 white-card holders across the country surrendered their documents by the April 1, 2015, deadline. In return they were given receipts which they were supposed to exchange for the “green cards” valid for two years. Few appear to have done so.

White cards were first issued in the early 1990s as a result of the 1982 Citizenship Law introduced by General Ne Win’s military regime. The law established three categories of citizenship that excluded most self-identifying Rohingya and barred them from obtaining national registration cards.

Under the previous government, the citizenship verification process was meant to be a three-step process, moving from township to state to Union-level committees. The township scrutiny committee is composed of general administrative officers, township immigration officials and township law officials, as well as one Muslim and two Rakhine representatives.

If the township scrutiny committee approves the candidate, forms are sent to the state immigration and population department. If the state officials pass the request, the Union ministry can determine whether or not to grant national registration cards (NRCs).

However, U Maung Maung Ohn said up to 1000 individuals from Myebon township who were granted NRCs during his tenure as chief minister faced difficulties travelling and living wherever they wanted, further fuelling mistrust of the citizenship system.

“They were afraid and they could not settle in other places,” he said.

He added that he believes it would be easier for the self-identifying Rohingya to gain citizenship if they relinquish claims to the term. Under the previous government the community was officially called “Bengali”.

“To be practical, it [citizenship] is not possible if they continue to insist and demand the name and rights as an ethnic group,” U Maung Maung Ohn said. “Rohingya” is not among the 135 recognised ethnic group labels.

State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said last month that the terms “Rohingya” and “Bengali” both have political connotations and can incite problems, and so should best be avoided as the government continues finding a solution that would benefit both communities in Rakhine State.

Yesterday, the Tatmadaw newspaper Myawady published an article that described the Muslim community as settling in Rakhine State under British colonial rule. It suggested that “Bengalis” who invaded from Bangladesh should not be granted citizenship, while those who have lived for generations in Rakhine State should not be recognised as “ethnic Rohingya” either.

The article also said the citizenship process should proceed under the provisions of the 1982 Citizenship Law.

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