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Government stands by citizenship pilot project in Rakhine despite protest

Citizenship scrutinizing card for Rohingya as Bengali+Kaman

By Ei Ei Toe Lwin / Myanmar Times
September 29, 2014

Rakhine State officials insist a citizenship scrutiny project in Myebon township has not been suspended, despite media reports to the contrary and protests from local Rakhine residents.

More than 1000 people have applied for citizenship through the pilot project. Of these, 209 were granted full or naturalised citizenship according to 1982 Citizenship Law at a ceremony on September 22, including 40 identified as Bengalis and 169 as Kaman.

However, Eleven Media reported the program hads been stopped because of concerns that some Muslims were carrying fake documents identifying them as Kaman, an officially recognised Muslim ethnic group from Rakhine State.

U Maung Maung Than, a director general in the Ministry of Immigration and Population, said the reports were incorrect. “The program is continuing,” he said. “The regional government is implementing matters related to scrutinising citizenship according to the law.”

The pilot project enables those eligible for citizenship to apply to become either full, associate or naturalised citizens. It has been controversial with some Muslims, as those who self-identify as Rohingya would have to register as Bengali, while some Rakhine have also opposed the program.

On the day of last week’s ceremony, Rakhine residents in Myebon staged a silent protest because of the concerns that “Bengalis”, who could be eligible for naturalised citizenship, were instead being given full citizenship as Kaman, said U Aung Win, the Rakhine State Hluttaw MP for Myebon.

“People protested silently by shutting the doors of their homes and closing their shops when the chief minister visited the town on September 22,” he said.

U Aung Win added that the state government had received applications for citizenship from more than 200 Bengalis in Myebon.

“We want the authorities to be careful with this process. We don’t want to give those Bengalis [full] citizenship,” he said.

The government has sought to head off this sentiment elsewhere by discussing the issue with community leaders. At a meeting with monks and town elders in Sittwe on September 23, Chief Minister U Maung Maung Ohn warned that they should respect the government’s decision on who is eligible for citizenship.

It remains unclear, however, when the project will expand beyond Mye-bon. U Maung Maung Than from the Ministry of Immigration and Population said it was up to the Central Committee for Citizenship Scrutiny, a Nay Pyi Taw-based body that includes the ministers for border affairs, president’s office, and immigration and population.

“The committee has not given any instructions to the regional government to expand the program into other areas,” he said.

Despite concerns in Rakhine State, the program has been cautiously welcomed by the United Nations as “a step in the right direction”, as it could lead to increased rights for stateless Muslims.

However, U Maung Maung Ohn told reporters on September 22 that the new citizens would not be able to avail themselves of those rights immediately.

“Because of the security situation, we can’t allow them to travel freely in Rakhine State yet,” he said.