RANGOON — Two Muslim political parties in Rangoon have asked the Burmese government to recognize their religious kin in western Burma’s Arakan State as Rohingya, a minority group that is currently denied citizenship, as the country gears up for a nationwide census later this year.
The two parties, the National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD) and the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), held a press conference on Friday in Rangoon, where leaders of the two parties told journalists that they would ask the government to recognize their Muslim constituents in Arakan State as Rohingya. They will seek the option to tick Rohingya among the list of ethnic groups that takers of the census will be asked to identify as.
The press conference came following a meeting between the two parties and Burma’s Immigration Minister Khin Ye, who asked for the political parties’ help in collecting census from Muslims in Arakan State. The party leaders agreed to provide assistance, but said on Friday that they would do so while pushing the government to recognize Muslims in Arakan as Rohingya.
“We are holding this press conference because we want the media to know that we are willing to help in taking the census among Muslim people in Arakan State. We wish to restore peace and rebuild Rakhine [Arakan] State,” said Kyaw Min, who is the chairman of the DHRP.
Government data from 2010 put Arakan State’s population at about 3,340,000 people, of which the Muslim population accounts for 29 percent.
Kyaw Min said recognizing Rohingya Muslims was a matter of basic human rights.
“Every human race has its own identity. We have our identity already,” Kyaw Min said. “This is not just now—we have had it for a long time. But we have found that there is discrimination in the country, which ignores our demand that our identity be recognized.”
Khin Maung Myint, an executive member of the NDPD, said the two parties would assist with administering the census in Arakan State from March to April.
Muslims in Arakan State and human rights advocates among the international community have repeatedly requested that the Burmese government recognize the Rohingya, but the government has continued to adhere to a 1982 Citizenship Law that bars them from citizenship and makes reference to the minority as “Bengalis.” The term derives from the fact that the government considers them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Many local Arakanse Buddhists worry that government recognition of the Rohingya population would precede an eventual shift in demographics in Arakan State, and with that a loss of political power and cultural identity.
Kyaw Min of the DHRP sought to dispel those fears on Friday.
“For many decades, the local Buddhist Arakanese and Rohingya people lived peacefully as one community in the region,” Kyaw Min said.
The help of the two parties could go some way toward ensuring that the 2014 census succeeds. In recent years the Burmese government has made several attempts to survey the Muslim population in Arakan State, but Muslims have refused to cooperate because the option to identify as Rohingya was not offered.
In its joint statement on Friday, the two parties said recognizing Rohingya Muslims—and guaranteeing the minority group equal rights—would contribute to peace and stable development in Arakan State.
“There should be no discrimination, and the government has a duty to give citizenship to its Muslims. We should have the choice to be Rohingya.”
During two outbreaks of religious violence in 2012, nearly 200 people were killed and about 140,000 displaced, most of them Muslims. About half of the displaced were Muslim residents who were chased out of the Arakan State capital Sittwe by local Buddhist Arakanese groups. Most of the displaced continue to reside in squalid, crowded camps.
In the aftermath of the 2012 violence, Burma’s President Thein Sein said Burma would not accept Rohingyas as citizens and has asked the United Nations to help to resettle them in any other country willing to take them in.
There are an estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Burma.