By Nurul Islam
Immediately after the two genocidal onslaughts against Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in Rakhine State (Arakan) in June and October 2012, random operations were launched by the immigration authorities, guarded by police and armed forces, to verify the citizenship of the Muslims – to verify who has the right to be a citizen of Myanmar, and who does not. The operations began quietly with no public announcement and the villagers were taken by surprise. They had not been told what the operations were for.
Rumours spread that, during the process of verification, the interviewing officers would ask the Rohingyas some intricate questions and classify them as Bengalis with a view to deporting them to third countries as stated by President Thein Sein and Dr. Aye Maung, Chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), which dominated the Rakhine state government. So, the Rohingyas, who were discriminated against and victims of genocide, were not ready to accept any such verification that would classify them “Bengali”.
However, sporadic attempts were made in some villages in the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Pauktaw and Sittwe but unsuccessfully. The verification teams suddenly went to Rohingya villages and conducted census-like operation, one family at a time. They were collecting information about birth dates and places, parents and grandparents — vital details of life and death spanning three generations. Decades of discrimination and exclusion has made it almost impossible for them to obtain key documents like birth certificates. Moreover, for decades there was no system of issuing birth certificates in Arakan. In addition, in violation of treaty obligation under Article 7(1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Child, 1989, which Burma ratified in 1991, hundreds and thousands of Rohingya children were blacklisted for their parents did not marry with so-called official permission.
However, there was one question, though, that the officers did not ask – the one that mattered above all the rest. It was represented on the forms by a blank line beside the entry. “Race/Nationality”. After each interview, the officers filled in the empty space with the word: “Bengali,” or “Bengali/Islam”. The officers refused to classify them as Rohingya, declaring that “the Rohingya do not exist. That is, the Rohingya are not included in a list of so-called nation’s 135 recognized ethnicities.
The operation began in the villages of Sin Thet Maw, Che Ni Pyin and other villages in Pauktaw Township on and around November 8, 2012. But the Rohingya villagers refused to accept “Bengali”, upon which the authorities called the community leaders from Sittwe to persuade them. Nevertheless, the villagers were firm in their stance. There were instances that villagers were beaten and arrested after refusing to sign forms identifying themselves as Bengali. To escape arrest and torture more than 2000 villagers had gone into hiding from Pauktaw Township.
On 26th April 2013, immigration authorities with members of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), guarded by police, army, immigration and NaSaKa border security forces again started verification operation in Sittwe (Akyab), but the Rohingya villagers rejected the interviewing officers’ writings on their household registration cards/family cards as “Bengalis” in race/nationality column. There was strong argument over the issue. Suddenly Rohingya children of Thet Kay Pyin and Bawdufa villages got organized and started chanting slogan, “We are Rohingya, we are not Bengali”. Then the police and army started shooting in a random manner. When people were dispersing running to and fro two immigration officers were slightly injured but they were given full protection and necessary help by U Kyaw Myint, a Rohingya village leader of Thet Kay Pyin.
On the same day of occurrence (26/4/2013) all the village elders were asked to attend a meeting at 5 p.m. in state ministry office, Sittwe. After the meeting the Rohingya leaders namely U Kyaw Myint, U Ba Thar, U Kyaw Khin,U San Lin were detained in district police office. Again on the following day (27/4/13) U Kyaw Hla, U Hla Myint S/o U Kyaw Myint were summoned and detained without assigning any reason. In addition, three more innocent Rohingyas namely Mohammad Hashim, Sawlema, Than Shwe were also detained under false allegations. Meanwhile, more than 100 innocent Rohingya villagers had fled to escape arrest.
In November 2003 verification operations were conducted in some Rohingya villages under Maungdaw township: they were Warcha, Ale Than Kyaw, Oo Daung, Basara (Tha Win Chaung), Zaw Ma Tat, Kyauk Pun Dhu, Shil Khali, and Maung Nama village. Villagers reacted negatively when they had been forced into accepting Bengali as their race. In Buthidaung township similar incidents also occurred in the villages of Sindin, Oo Hla Pe and others. .
In the month of December it was carried on in Maungdaw municipal area such as, Ward 1, Ward 2, Ward 3, Ward 4, Ward 5, Ward 6, but no one was reported to have been forced to accept Bengali. In the meantime, it is rumoured that in the current month of January 2014, the verification will be continued in the villages of Shweza, Myoma Kayandan, Maung Ni, Hla Tha (Nawyapara), Aye Tah Liah, all of them adjacent to Maungdaw town.
The names of those who were not present or found at the time of verification were cancelled from their household registration card/family list, without consideration of their absence on valid grounds. Newborn babies, newly married brides and bridegrooms were not easily listed or registered unless a bribe of Kyat 10,000- 40,000 was paid for each case.
The Rohingyas echoed the concern that the authorities would use the forcibly obtained results of the verification to definitely rule out citizenship for the Rohingya, who are — because of long-drawn-out anti-Rohingya propaganda– widely viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in utter disregard of their centuries-old settlements with a long history and glorious past in Arakan.
A team of Associated Press journalists travelled to remote island village of Sin Thet Maw and they had interviewed the Rohingya villagers. AP reported, quoting Rakhine State government spokesman U Win Maung as saying, “more than 2,000 Muslim families have gone through the process, but no illegal settlers have been found.
In the last monthly regular meeting of the Maungdaw township village administrative officers held at Maungdaw on 1st January 2014, the District Administrative Officer U Aung Myint Soe and Township Administrative Officer U Kyi San warned the village administrators to use “Bengali” in the verification of Rohingya. Similarly they ordered the immigration officers to force the Rohingya villagers into accepting Bengali in the coming census although, a few months ago, the Immigration Minister U Khin Yi told the Rohingya members of parliament (MPs) that the government would not object using “Rohingya” in the coming census in March 2014.