BANGKOK - The Muslim stateless residents of northern Rakhine state have long identified themselves as “Rohingya,” a term recognized by the United Nations, and foreign nations, including the United States.
But not by Myanmar’s government. Instead, authorities are asking them to register as “Bengalis.”
Myanmar's immigration department plans to carry out a controversial citizenship verification process in Rakhine state where there have been deadly ethnic and religious clashes since 2012.
The government said the process is aimed at determining who qualifies to become a naturalized citizen. But many of those being asked to participate express concern it will classify them as illegal immigrants.
Shwe Maung, an ethnic Rohingya member of parliament, said those being asked to register are hesitant to do so because they fear registering as Bengali will negatively impact their chances for full citizenship.
He said there is no trust in the process, which he said could officially classify more than 1 million people as stateless, some of whom have been living in Myanmar for generations.
"If they are 'Bengali,' the process will be as for foreigners, according to the 1982 law, I think therefore, Myanmar border police want, as with the census, the people to write themselves in as Bengali," Maung said.
Shwe Maung said he has raised concerns about partial citizenship rights in parliament, but the issue is pending.
Registration with the immigration department begins the citizenship verification process, after which a government committee is sent to weigh evidence of each individual's eligibility for citizenship.
Because most Rohingya do not have government-issued identification, the committees will largely rely on the testimonies of village elders.
Many Rohingyas are skeptical that a government that already classifies them as Bengalis will grant them citizenship based on the testimonies of village elders.
Washington has, in the past, pressured the Myanmar government on the 1982 Citizenship Law. And in its 2014 report on religious freedom, called on authorities to promote the rights of Rohingya Muslims and provide “durable solutions” for refugees outside the country.
Matthew Smith, director of the international human rights group Fortify Rights, says giving Rohingya equal access to citizenship rights is crucial to preventing the conflict in the future. He says foreign nations should press the government more on the issue.
"The fact that the immigration department is handling this issue is indicative of the perception that all Rohingya come from Bangladesh," Smith said. "Immigration is an issue on all of Myanmar's borders, but the wholesale denial of Rohingya citizenship, Rohingya ethnicity, has contributed to these abuses that we've been documenting now for two years."
So far, Rakhine political leaders like Aye Maung, a member of the newly formed Arakan National Party, have been supportive of the citizenship verification process.
In the past, Rohingyas have registered with the government and received "white cards," which conferred the right to vote, but few other significant citizenship rights.
But according to Aye Maung, the Arakan National Party has submitted a bill to parliament that would disallow even national registration card, or "white card" holders to vote in 2015.
"We also accept this process we also demand all Bengali to go with this existing citizenship law for their status, and some percentage will get registration card," said Aye Maung.
So far this year, an estimated 80,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar by boat to neighboring Southeast Asian countries.
Since 2012, violence between Muslims and Buddhists have flared up across the country, killing hundreds, and displacing hundreds of thousands living in prison-like conditions in camps.