Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

National and World

November 30, 2012

AP Exclusive: Myanmar verifying Muslim citizenship


The operation observed by the AP in Sin Thet Maw appeared to be part of an effort to resolve the issue.

By law, anyone whose forefathers lived in Myanmar prior to independence in 1948 has the right to apply for citizenship. But in practice, most Rohingya have been unable to. They must typically obtain permission to travel, and sometimes even to marry.

Discrimination has made it hard to obtain key documents like birth certificates, according to rights groups. Many Rohingya, having migrated here during the era of British colonial rule, speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, with darker skin than other ethnic groups in Myanmar.

The road to naturalization grew more difficult with a 1982 citizenship law that excluded the Rohingya from a list of the nation's 135 recognized ethnicities. Since Bangladesh also rejects them, the move effectively rendered the Rohingya living in Myanmar stateless — a population the U.N. estimates at 800,000.

The issue is so fraught that even the word "Rohingya" itself is widely disputed. Buddhists say the term was made up to obscure the Muslim population's South Asian heritage; they do not accept the Rohingya as a separate ethnic group, and instead call them "Bengali" — a reference to the belief they are in fact Bangladeshis who entered illegally.

While some Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations and have documents to prove it, others arrived more recently. There is little distinction between these two groups, though. During the last official census in 1983, the Rohingya were excluded.

In places like Sit Thet Maw, Rakhine Buddhist elders believe they are on the front line of a population explosion, and they are worried.

Some 70 years ago, there were about 1,000 Buddhist and 100 Muslim inhabitants here, according to Said Thar Tun Maung, a 59-year-old Rakhine who works as a local government administrator. Today, the Buddhists are a minority: They number just 1,900, compared to 4,000 Rohingya residents.

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