By John Zaw, Mandalay
Ethnic Rakhines in Sittwe lashed out this week after the government on Monday granted citizenship to 209 minority Muslims displaced by sectarian violence sweeping through Rakhine state.
Rakhine residents in Myebon township have shut their shops, avoided markets and remained at home as a means of lodging discontent against a rare government effort to protect the rights of minority Rohingyas.
“Our Rakhine community doesn’t accept that more than 200 Bengalis have been granted citizenship,” said Lower House member of parliament Pe Than, using a widely employed term for Rohingyas that implies the Muslims are illegal aliens from Bangladesh.
“The verification process has been so quick and the township level board didn’t listen to the voices and recommendations of the Rakhine community leaders,” he continued.
Rights groups have pushed the Myanmar government to provide legal citizenship documents for the country’s estimated 1.3 million Rohingyas, whose statelessness has left them vulnerable to severe abuses. Hundreds of thousands have fled targeted attacks, resulting in the overcrowding refugee camps on both sides of the border with Bangladesh and prompting humanitarian crises.
Khin Soe, a Sittwe state immigration officer, said citizenship for the 209 Muslims, following a trial ethnicity verification process, was only the first phase and promised that more people would be offered full rights in the coming weeks.
Another 299 people on a township-approved list will be submitted to the state for approval this week during a second phase, he said.
But the move may well inflame tensions and the newly minted citizens have already been urged to remain in the camps.
“The authorities told us that we have the same rights as other citizens and are free to travel. But they pled with us to be patient and not to leave the camp or travel far to avoid raising tensions,” said Kyaw Thein, Myebon township IDP camp leader.
The verification itself has come under fire — in spite of recommendations by advocacy and rights groups, the government has insisted on listing “Bengali” as the only option for Rohingyas.
Community leader Aung Win said that numerous Muslims declined registration because to do so would mean saying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“I always say that this is not practical and it lacks transparency and openness, so we doubt the rights of Rohingya who got citizenship with the ‘Bengali’ tag,” Aung Win told ucanews.com.
Pe Than, the Rakhine MP, said there would almost certainly be protests should the government push on with its verification.
“The government-initiated citizenship verification process is just for show for the international community and an attempt to reduce pressure at the United Nations General Assembly,” he said.