Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

National and World

November 30, 2012

AP Exclusive: Myanmar verifying Muslim citizenship

(Continued)

"What we know is that they don't want us here," said one 34-year-old Muslim named Zaw Win, who said his family had lived in Sin Thet Maw since 1918.

So far, more than 2,000 Muslim families have gone through the process, but no "illegal settlers have been found," said state spokesman Win Myaing.

It was not immediately clear, however, what would happen to anyone deemed to be illegal. Win Myaing declined to say whether they could deported or not. Bangladesh has regularly turned back Rohingya refugees, as have other countries, including Thailand.

Few issues in Myanmar are as sensitive as this.

The conflict has galvanized an almost nationalistic furor against the Rohingya, who majority Buddhists believe are trying to steal scarce land and forcibly spread the Islamic faith. Myanmar's recent transition to democratic rule has opened the way for monks to stage anti-Rohingya protests as an exercise in freedom of expression, and for vicious anti-Rohingya rants to swamp Internet forums.

In the nearby town of Pauktaw, where all that remains of a once-significant Muslim community are the ashes of charred homes and blackened palm trees, the hatred is clear. Graffiti scrawled inside a destroyed mosque ominously warns that the "Rakhine will drink Kalar blood." Kalar is a derogatory epithet commonly used to refer to Muslims here.

Myanmar's reformist leader, President Thein Sein, had set a harsh tone over the summer, saying that "it is impossible to accept those Rohingya who are not our ethnic nationals."

But this month, he appeared to change course, penning an unprecedented and politically risky letter to the U.N. promising to consider new rights for the Rohingya for the first time.

In the letter, Thein Sein said his government would address contentious issues "ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship," but he gave no timeline and stopped short of fully committing to naturalize them.

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