Prosecutors in Sittwe have hit seven Rohingyas in Arakan state with myriad charges, including rioting, after they were arrested for refusing to register as ‘Bengalis’.
During a hearing on 23 May, senior immigration official Yan Aung Myint charged the seven suspects from Thetkalpyin displacement camp with robbery, intimidation and disturbing officials on duty. Twenty-four individuals, who authorities claimed might be on the run, were also charged in absentia.
The hearing comes after a scuffle erupted between government officials and the Rohingya on 26 April, after authorities tried to register the internally displaced persons (IDPs) as ‘Bengalis’ in accordance with a programme headed by the Ministry of Immigration and Population.
Prosecutors said that around 100 residents, armed with sticks and swords, quickly gathered at the scene and began attacking authorities, which included policemen and soldiers who were accompanying the officials.
According to the defendants’ attorney Hla Myo Myint, the skirmish began after one of his clients, Suleman, was slapped in the face by an official, which prompted children in the camp to begin throwing rocks at authorities.
Army sergeant Win Aung reportedly sustained a head injury after being struck by a rock at the scene, while local Arakanese team member Tun Hla Aung and immigration official Sai Myint Thu sustained lacerations on their backs.
Security forces reportedly fired shots in an attempt to disperse the crowd as they hurled rocks and screamed “Rohingya! Rohingya!” Seven individuals from Thetkalpyin and two from Bawdupha displacement camps were arrested in the skirmish’s wake.
According to Hla Myo Myint, the officials who went to the camps to register the IDPs had no legal right to force his clients to identify as Bengalis – a term commonly used by government officials that implicitly infers that the group are illegal immigrants
“The officials had no authority to determine their ethnicity – according to the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, the decision has to come at the last stage and made by a government body,” said Hla Myo Myint.
“Reportedly the [officials] were listing them [as Bengali] by force.”
Hla Myo Myint, who has represented high-profile opposition activists including the National League for Democracy’s chair Aung San Suu Kyi in the past, said his clients’ families and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) asked that he provide legal counsel to the group. Two of the individuals Kyaw Myint and his son Hla Myint who are being charged are both USDP members.
“I’m doing this for the rule of law – one of the main objectives of the NLD – to allow human rights for them regardless of their religion and ethnicity,” said Hla Myo Myint.
The next court appointment has been set for 6 June, but will likely to be postponed until officials can decide if the 24 individuals charged in absentia have actually fled.
Arakan state is home to more than 140,000 IDPs, after two bouts of religious violence pitting Arakanese Buddhists against Muslim Rohingya last year led to massive displacement.