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Flickers of Hope, Shadow of Uncertainty for Muslims in Arakan Citizenship Pilot

Moe Rue Husom, who also goes by Min Aung, shows his recently obtained green ID card, indicating that he is a naturalized citizen under Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)
October 10, 2014
 
MYEBON TOWNSHIP, Arakan State — Similar to other camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Arakan State, tales of suffering are in no short supply here in Myebon, where the displaced have languished in hardscrabble living conditions for nearly two years.
 
But these Rohingya Muslims have a little more hope than most. Here, at least, some members of the persecuted minority have had an opportunity that many others have not: the chance to receive government-issued ID cards, affording some of the rights of citizenship for the first time.
 
All they have to do, the government says, is renounce any claim to an ethnic Rohingya identity.
 
The Myebon IDP camp was selected by the government to pilot a national verification plan, the implications of which remain unknown for those formerly stateless individuals who, on Sept. 22, received citizenship cards. During a visit to the camp this week, residents showed The Irrawaddy their newly issued cards, admitting to their own uncertainty about what the cards might mean for them.
 
For now, one thing is clear: 40 people out of more than 1,200 who have applied under the verification program so far have received pink cards, theoretically entitling them to the rights of full citizens of Burma. Another 169 people have received green cards, denoting their status as “naturalized citizens,” which can be revoked.
 
Min Aung, a 42-year-old Muslim in the camp, showed The Irrawaddy his green ID card, explaining that with it, he was told rights previously denied would now be his to enjoy.
 
“During our swearing-in ceremony, where they [immigration officials] offered the ID cards, they told us that we had become citizens of the country,” he said. “We can travel anywhere and can run our own businesses, but we cannot serve in Parliament as an MP, nor can we join the military.”
 
This is true, according to Khin Soe, the immigration officer in Sittwe who issued the initial batch of ID cards for the Muslims in Myebon. He added, however, that travel restrictions would remain in place for the time being out of fear that the situation remained unstable, given the local Arakanese community’s opposition to the pilot project.
 
“They have become citizens of our Myanmar,” he said. “They have the rights of citizenship. But, there have been problems between these two communities. They can travel, but we are worried that there will be more problems. This is why we do not let them travel yet.”
 
He said it would be the duty of state- and Union-level resettlement departments to assist the newly minted citizens with housing and other measures to help restore their livelihoods.
 
A total of 1,218 people living in the Myebon camp have applied for ID cards, according to the state Immigration Department, out of just over 3,000 camp residents in total.
 
Those who can show that they are at least the third generation to live in Burma could receive pink cards.
 
“Those 40 people who we granted full citizenship were found to have been born here before 1982. … They have full documents. We could not say that they came from another country,” Khin Soe said.
 
He said even people who could not provide documents might qualify for citizenship, subject to a ruling from “board members,” a seven-person panel that has a major say in determining whether applicants in Myebon qualify for citizenship
 
“There are people who can prove where they have been staying in the town, and even board members who knew their parents. In such cases, the board will approve it if they are found to be telling the truth,” he said.
 
Ethnic Arakanese leaders are not happy about the pilot project, which they say has lacked transparency. The Arakan State Immigration Department counters that two Arakanese community leaders were appointed as board members ruling on the citizenship applications.
 
The Arakanese Buddhist population and the state’s Rohingya minority have been embroiled in a sometimes violent communal conflict, with about 140,000 of the latter having been displaced by violence since 2012.
 
Aye Maung, a senior member of the Arakan National Party (ANP) serving in the national Parliament, said that state and Union governments shared blame for the opposition that the pilot has stirred among the Arakanese.
 
“They discussed with us their project, but they did not show their plan when they implemented it,” the lawmaker said. “There should be transparency regarding the action plan for the national verification pilot.”
 
He said local grievances should be addressed before any effort by the governments is made to implement the verification program statewide.
 
“They should show our people all information about why they gave those 40 people citizenship, or they should have copy papers and posted information about the 40 people—why they got ID cards—so our people will understand why these people got ID cards,” he said, adding that it remained unclear what would happen to those who failed to qualify for citizenship.
 
‘They Told Me All Muslims in Arakan Are Bengali’
 
Ma Shee, who calls herself a Kaman Muslim, said immigration officials refused to accept her ethnic claim and forced her family to identify as “Bengali” during the application process. Burma’s government does not recognize the term Rohingya and insists they are Bengalis, implying that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
 
“I told them [immigration officials] that we are Kaman, but they responded to me that all Muslims in Arakan are Bengali,” Ma Shee told The Irrawaddy.
 
Aung San had a similar experience.
 
“My father is Kaman, but they [immigration] disregarded this and forced us to be Bengali,” he said, showing an Irrawaddy reporter a document testifying to his parents’ ethnic Kaman identities, which he took with him before fleeing his home in the 2012 violence.
 
“We do not need a lot of opportunities. We only want to be able to travel freely, so we can do some businesses for our family,” he said.
 
Daw Cho, while lamenting the government’s decision to reject many Kaman Muslims claims, said she was nonetheless grateful for the chance to receive a degree of citizenship.
 
“If we can travel freely, our people will be very happy even though they were recognized as Bengali. It is very important, freedom to travel. We wanted to have equal rights,” said the Muslim woman.
 
Regarding to case of complaints about Bengali, Khin Soe, the officer from immigration said that the government only recognized Bengali, and the government did not recognize Rohingya, therefor his immigration has to it according to the order from the government.
 
Asked about any Myebon resident applying for citizenship as a Rohingya, Khin Soe repeated an oft-uttered government line that no such group existed, and that any applicant applying as such would not be recognized under the national verification pilot.
 
Regarding the complaints of Kaman Muslims like Aung San, Khin Soe said that his Immigration Department would allow Kaman designations to individuals providing full documentation to support the claim, and that those failing to do so would be required to accept “Bengali” in order to have their application considered.
 
More Applicants in the Pipeline
 
As more citizenship applications are considered, stories of ethnic reclassification look likely to continue to underpin the national verification process.
 
“We have 124 people that have newly applied, they applied recently. We cannot force them to apply, but if they accept Bengali, we will accept more if they come,” said Khin Soe.
 
“We are worried a lot about what we will get,” said Hla Myint, who is awaiting word on the status of his application.
 
Adding to the uncertainty, a “Rakhine [Arakan] Action Plan” recently publicized has revealed a government plan that would effectively force Rohingya to identify as Bengali or risk internment in temporary detention in camps. The plan has been condemned by human rights groups, who say it represents a continuation of systematically discriminant government policy.
 
The government chose Myebon for its pilot because of the positive relationship between IDPs and local officials, according to Hla Myint.
 
“The people who are here are polite. They have cooperated with the government,” he said, adding that he believed the community’s cooperation with authorities during census enumeration earlier this year was a factor in Myebon being selected for the pilot project.
 
Not only are they polite. They are willing, it seems, to accept the government’s terms when it comes to ethnic identity, if it means hope for a better future.
 
“We need to agree to whatever they recognize us as, because we have two children … who have not been able to continue their education for the last two years,” said Daw Cho. “They have lost educational opportunities. We have to worry for them. We are staying in a prison now.”