Ethnic Rohingya Muslims at a camp set up outside the city of Sittwe in Myanmar's Rakhine state, in May (AFP Photo/Ye Aung Thu)
Officials in Rakhine state last week began issuing new identity verification cards to Rohingya Muslims in 14 townships. Authorities say the move creates a path to citizenship for the embattled ethnic minority, yet many Rohingya fear it will instead drive them further away.
Khin Soe, an immigration officer in Sittwe, said the new identification cards have been issued following a decision by the government to reclaim a previous form of temporary identification for Rohingya — so-called ‘white cards’.
“We are issuing green cards and accepting application forms for verifying citizenship for those who want it. Then we will carry out the process according to the 1982 citizenship law,” Khin Soe told ucanews.com on Wednesday.
The Myanmar government revoked the white cards in February and set a deadline of May 31 for cardholders — predominantly stateless Muslims who identify their ethnicity as Rohingya — to turn them in as part of a national citizenship program.
Some 400,000 white cards have been collected as of the deadline, according to the government.
The green cards are valid for two years, but holders who do not wish to apply for citizenship can stay in the country indefinitely by applying for extensions, Khin Soe said.
Several factors have complicated the citizenship program, including delays in reclaiming all white cards and questions about what would be required of the Rohingya community to apply for citizenship on the basis of the new identification cards.
The government and the Buddhist Rakhine community do not recognize Rohingya as one of the country’s official ethnic groups, and instead require them to identify as ‘Bengali’ because they are considered illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Under the 1982 citizenship law, any path to citizenship would require identifying as Bengali.
“We have explained to Muslims already about the issuing of green cards as a step to citizenship … but the process is not as quick as retrieving the white cards because the [Rohingya] have taken a ‘wait and see’ approach,” Khin Soe said.
He added that only 71 green cards have so far been issued in three townships.
Rohingya communities remain skeptical of the citizenship program, said Kyaw Hla Aung, a community leader in Sittwe township.
“I know that many people are not accepting the green cards because they have lived here for generations. I feel that we don’t need them because the process seems to move us farther away from citizenship and our rights,” he said.
The issuing of green cards may also have an impact on national elections scheduled for November.
On February 2, parliament granted white card holders the right to vote in a constitutional referendum. However, widespread protests by Buddhists and monks led to the decision to revoke them.
White-card holders were allowed to vote in the 2010 elections that ushered in the country’s quasi-civilian government.
Khin Soe said it was not clear if green card holders would be allowed to vote, saying that would be up to the Election Commission.
U Faruk, a committee member at the Dar Paing IDP camp north of Sittwe, said that residents remain hesitant to accept the green cards and are unwilling to identify as Bengali.
“We have long expected our right of citizenship because we have lived in Rakhine state for many decades, and we have lived peacefully alongside Rakhine Buddhists,” he told ucanews.com on Wednesday.
“I prefer Rohingya citizenship to Bengali since we are not from Bangladesh.”
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