SIN THET MAW, Myanmar (AP) — Guarded by rifle-toting police, immigration authorities in western Myanmar have launched a major operation aimed at settling an explosive question at the heart of the biggest crisis the government has faced since beginning its nascent transition to democracy last year.
It's a question that has helped fuel two bloody spasms of sectarian unrest between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims since June, and it comes down to one simple thing: Who has the right to be a citizen of Myanmar, and who does not?
A team of Associated Press journalists that traveled recently to the remote island village of Sin Thet Maw, a maze of bamboo huts without electricity in Myanmar's volatile west, found government immigration officials in the midst of a painstaking, census-like operation aimed at verifying the citizenship of Muslims living there, one family at a time.
Armed with pens, stacks of paper and hand-drawn maps, they worked around low wooden tables that sat in the dirt, collecting information about birth dates and places, parents and grandparents — vital details of life and death spanning three generations.
The operation began quietly with no public announcement in the township of Pauktaw on Nov. 8, of which the village of Sin Thet Maw is a part. It will eventually be carried out across all of Rakhine state, the coastal territory where nearly 200 people have died in the last five months, and 110,000 more, mostly Muslims, have fled.
The Thailand-based advocacy group, the Arakan Project, warns the results could be used to definitively rule out citizenship for the Rohingya, who have suffered discrimination for decades and are widely viewed as foreigners from Bangladesh. Muslims in Sin Thet Maw echoed those concerns, and said they had not been told what the operation was for.