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A government-led pilot programme aimed at verifying the citizenship of Muslim residents in the contentious Arakan State was carried out in a displacement camp in Myebon Township on Sunday.
The programme, requested by civil society organisations and members of parliament, was launched after a meeting that included Immigration Minister Khin Yi, senior immigration officials and local community leaders, said Oo Hla Thein, Arakan State’s attorney-general and the regional government spokesman. In attendance were Rohingya community representatives who reportedly agreed with their Arakanese counterparts and government officials that they should not refer to themselves as ethnic Rohingya, Oo Hla Thein said.
He added that Maung Maung Than, director-general of the Department of Immigration and National Registration, led a field trip to a displacement camp in Myebon on Sunday to collect personal information from Muslim residents to ascertain their eligibility to become citizens under the 1982 Citizenship Law.
“The programme aims to verify those over the age of 18 on whether they are eligible to become Burmese citizens under the 1982 Citizenship Law,” Oo Hla Thein said. “Those who meet the requirements provided by the law will go through official steps to apply for citizenship with a central government board, consisting of three government ministers including Immigration Minister Khin Yi.”
The 1982 Citizenship Law enables those who can prove that their ancestors lived in Burma before the country’s independence in 1948 to become eligible for Burmese citizenship. Arakan State has been a flashpoint for sectarian violence between the majority Arakanese Buddhists and Muslim minorities, with stateless Rohingya Muslims suffering most of the damages. Several bouts of violence in the state has left about 200 people dead and more than 140,000 displaced from their homes.
The UN recently estimated that more than 86,000 people have fled the state by boat since June 2012 to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.
The Myebon displacement camp has roughly 3,000 inhabitants, though only 60 people will be enrolled in the pilot programme, Zaw Zaw, a Rohingya resident in the camp said, adding that 47 people were enrolled on Sunday.
“We are planning to enrol about 60 residents in the programme first and to determine whether the rest should follow or not, depending on how it turns out,” Zaw Zaw said, adding that the immigration officials were prioritising the people that hold green ID cards issued before the 1990 elections.
The programme offers three choices of ethnic identification to those seeking citizenship – Kaman, Bengali, or nothing at all – making the process “awkward” for inhabitants that self-identify as Rohingyas, he continued.
“We are basically under pressure by everyone — the government, and both Muslim and Arakanese communities,” Zaw Zaw said. “If we accept the term ‘Bengali’, we get phone calls from [Rohingyas] accusing us of not standing up for our own race, and if we refuse to accept the term, then we risk angering the Arakanese community and the government.”
“It’s very frustrating and we just want to run away from here,” he said.