Seven Rohingyas were arrested at a displacement camp in northern Arakan state late last month, after an altercation with officials who tried to force them to register as “Bengalis” on a regional census.
Officials began compiling lists of internally displaced persons (IDPs) at camps near the state capital Sittwe on 26 April as part of an effort to identify the ethnicities of the local population. But several Rohingyas objected to being registered as “Bengali” – which is how the government describes the stateless Muslim minority.
According to local sources, a female resident at Thetkalpyin IDP camp refused to sign the census unless she could be recognised as Rohingya – which is what the group calls themselves. Residents claim she was then slapped by a local official and other camp residents then began chanting “Rohingya! Rohingya!”.
The situation reportedly escalated until someone threw a rock at a security force member, leaving him with a head injury. Later that day 10 community leaders from the camp were summoned to a meeting with authorities, where two of them were taken into custody. The Rohingya woman and her son were also detained, according to Than Htike, a Thetkalpyin villager.
“Two community leaders; Kyaw Myint and Ba Thar, are still being detained,” said Than Htike. “Around 300 police showed up and detained the woman, Sulema, and her son.”
He said two local officials from Thetkalpyin camp; the village administrator and an auxiliary fire brigade captain were arrested the following day for failing to prevent the altercation. The son of one of the community leaders was also arrested on 29 April. Their whereabouts are currently unknown.
A similar altercation reportedly broke out at Bawdupha IDP camp in Sittwe on 26 April, causing security forces to open fire into the crowd, leaving a child with a gunshot wound on the leg.
The census is being carried out as part of a government drive to register and resettle IDPs, who were uprooted after two bouts of vicious ethno-religious clashes between Buddhist Arakanese and Rohingya Muslims last year.
On Monday, a government-backed investigation into the violence called for displaced Muslims – who are believed to number over 125,000 – to be swiftly resettled into better housing before the onset of monsoon season. But the report also described the Muslim group, which was stripped of citizenship by the military junta, as “Bengalis”.
Hla Thein, deputy-chairman of National Democratic Party for Development, criticised the government for forcing the Rohingya to register as “Bengalis”.
“It is up to the parliament to decide whether they are citizens or not so it is beyond my comprehension as to why [local authorities] want to scrutinise the population or how it is necessary to decide whether they should be Rohingyas or Bengalis,” said Hla Thein.
“It is inappropriate to force them like this without verifying [their citizenship] under the 1982 law,” referring to the contentious legislation, which rendered the Rohingya stateless.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, criticised the government-backed report for failing to address the statelessness of the Rohingya minority.
“I have always said that discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine [Arakan] state is one of the underlying causes of the violent conflict between communities there,” he said. “The statelessness of the 800,000 Rohingya population underlies their marginalisation and makes them particularly vulnerable to discrimination and human rights violations.”
According to a local influential figure in Sittwe, speaking on the condition of anonymity, the seven arrested individuals have been charged. The Arakan state government was unavailable for comment.