By Gianluca Mezzofiore
Myanmar has laid out a controversial plan to offer citizenship to Rohingya Muslims, described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted minority, in exchange for registering their identities as Bengali.
Foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin said in an address to the UN general assembly that an action plan will be launched soon and requested the international community to provide development assistance in the Rakhine state, where most of the country’s 1.1 million Rohingya live, stateless and in apartheid-like conditions.
“We are working for peace, stability, harmony and development of all people in Rakhine state,” he said.
But critics of the plan claim the Muslim minority are given a false choice: accept ethnic change to Bengali or be detained. According to the Rakhine State Action Plan, Rohingya will be forced to register their identities as Bengali, renouncing to their religious and linguistic heritage.
The history of Rohingya and how they arrived in Myanmar is controversial, with historians divided whether this dates back centuries or it is a relatively recent phenomenon.
The Myanmar government and local Burmese consider Rohingya as unwelcome migrants from Bangladesh in the last century. The state-run press differentiates between “locals” (i.e. Arakan Buddhists) and “Bengalis” to indicate Rohingya, although they have been living in the Rakhine state for generations.
Rohingya are denied access to education and employment and face “unacceptable restrictions on movement, marriage, and reproduction”, according to reports.
Ahead of the official announcement, Reuters reported that the plan, drafted in secret by the government, featured the reconstruction of homes for displaced people, enhancement of health care and education and promoting reconciliation. It also proposes that authorities “construct temporary camps in required numbers for those who refuse to be registered” in the government’s reclassification.
Communal violence between Buddhists and Rohingya exploded in 2012, leaving about 200 people dead and 140,000 displaced. Violence against Myanmar’s Muslims intensified over the past two years, incited by extremist monks and the virulent anti-Muslim ‘969’ campaign, which espouses hate and urges Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses.
In January, Burmese police set fire to at least 70 Rohingya homes in the village of Du Char Yar Tan, where at least 48 Muslims were said to have been killed by a Buddhist mob.
Aid groups operating in the Rakhine state have faced threats and intimidation. In March, Doctors without Borders was expelled from the state, in part because its staff included Rohingya. Other humanitarian groups were temporarily evacuated after Buddhist extremists stormed their residence in the state capital Sittwe.