Myanmar gave citizenship on Monday to 209 Muslims displaced by sectarian violence, after the first phase of a project aimed at determining the status of about a million Rohingya whose claims to nationality have been rejected in the past.
The Rohingya Muslim minority live under apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine State in the west, needing permission to move from their villages or from camps where almost 140,000 remain after being displaced in deadly clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
The government and many people in the predominantly Buddhist country refer to them as “Bengali”, a term that implies they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although Rohingya families have lived in the area for generations.
Officials from Myanmar’s immigration ministry told Reuters that 1,094 Muslims took part in the pilot verification process in displacement camps in Myebon, which is about 51 km (32 miles) from the state capital, Sittwe, and accessible only by boat.
Some of the 209 who received citizenship were members of the Kaman Muslim minority, who are recognized by the government as indigenous to Myanmar, but there were also Rohingya.
Officials were not immediately able to explain why this group had been given citizenship, nor how many Rohingya were included.
Aung Win, a Rohingya community leader in Sittwe, said many had refused to take part in the verification process because they did not want to list their identity as Bengali, as required by the authorities.
Rights advocates say the Rohingya should be allowed to choose how they are described, but others say the importance of the citizenship verification process trumps such concerns because it is necessary to resolve the issue of statelessness.
Many Rohingya are effectively stateless because they are not recognized as citizens by Myanmar or by neighboring Bangladesh.
Some United Nations agencies working in Myanmar have adopted a policy of avoiding the word Rohingya because it angers officials and nationalist religious leaders in Rakhine State, who can block them from carrying out humanitarian work.
In June, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said it had been asked by state officials to apologize for saying “Rohingya” during a presentation outlining development plans.
Most Rohingya were excluded from a UN-backed census earlier this year because they refused to list their identities as Bengali.
David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Myanmar with New York-based Human Rights Watch, said agencies that cave in to the government are abdicating responsibility to defend the rights of the Rohingya.
“This isn’t some kind of practical way to ensure long-term aid and development,” he said. “This is active connivance in systemic abuse against a minority.”
– by Jared Ferrie in Yangon