Thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Pauktaw Township, Arakan (Rakhine) State, have refused to sign government-issued registration forms in order to push for recognition as an official minority.
Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project humanitarian group which works for Rohingya rights, told The Irrawaddy that local people are not happy that the authorities erased the term “Rohingya” from completed forms and instead replaced it with “Bengali.”
Almost all members of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Pauktaw Township have since refused to cooperate with the fortnight-old registration process which was ostensibly initiated to get accurate numbers for the different communities present there.
Local people feared that they would be declared illegal migrants and deported if they registered under the loaded term “Bengali,” which used by many Burmese in the belief that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. This claim is vehemently denied by the Rohinyga who highlight that many of their community have lived in Burma for generations.
Border authorities, Burmese soldiers, immigration officials, police and Arakanese politicians from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) have been attempting a house-to-house registration procedure to check personal details.
A field report from the Arakan Project revealed that from the very first day those who refused to use the term “Bengali” were removed from the survey.
On Saturday, Rohingya in Set Kyi Pyin Village informed the local authorities that they would only sign the forms if United Nations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations representatives were present as witnesses, according to the Arakan Project.
Meanwhile, Thet Tun, a MP for the RNDP in the Arakan State Parliament, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the term “Rohingya” was invented. “They are Bengali, but they do not accept it any more now and they only accepted the term Rohingya,” he said.
Thet Tun added that around 1,800 displaced people at a refugee camp In Nget Chaung Village refused to cooperate with the authorities and register unless they were allowed to be called Rohingya.
The Arakan Project accused the local authorities of forcing people to sign the registration form by threatening that they otherwise would not receive clothes for their children or help rebuilding burned houses.
The Arakan State government formed a committee last month to register every township in its boundaries. From this body, 15 separate groups attempted the village-to-village registration process in Pauktaw Township.
Individuals being surveyed were presented with a four-page form. The first details name, age, village, occupation, education, marital status, race and possessed documents. The second has ancestral details, grandparents, great-grandparents and immigration information. The third includes criminal convictions or proceedings, while the final page is for a signature or fingerprint.
There are 135 official ethnic groups in Burma according to the widely-condemned 1982 citizenship law enacted by former dictator Gen Ne Win. The Rohingya are not included amongst this number and have faced restrictions on travel, marriage and reproduction as a consequence.