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Myanmar Halts Citizenship Verification Project for Muslim Minorities

FILE - Rohingya Muslims pass time near their shelter at a refugee camp outside Sittwe, Myanmar, June 2014.
FILE - Rohingya Muslims pass time near their shelter at a refugee camp outside Sittwe, Myanmar, June 2014.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has halted a national pilot project to verify the citizenship status of Muslim minorities in western Rakhine State.

Rakhine Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn told VOA Burmese Thursday that since the program began last year, only 40 Muslims were given citizenship and more than 200 were granted temporary citizenship because only those who identified themselves as Bengali were accepted.

“The Rakhine situation is too complicated. The verification process is difficult since applicants are applying with an identity which does not exist in the country,” said Maung Maung.

Most Muslims in the state refer to themselves as Rohingya, a term rejected by the government, which sees the Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and refers to them as "Bengalis."

Officials have said the verification process was being conducted under a 1982 law that bars citizenship registration using the term Rohingya instead of Bengali.

Shwe Maung, a Muslim member of parliament from the western part of Rakhine, said there may be a way around the problem.

“I want to point out we should look at the generation of those who hold temporary citizenship cards," he said. "The problem will be solved in short term if those who hold [temporary] citizenship cards and whose parents hold [temporary] citizenship cards are allowed to apply for citizenship [using] normal procedures, instead of a specific project."

For years, international rights groups have criticized government policies that deny the Rohingya citizenship and restrict their travel.

Violence between Myanmar's Buddhist majority and Muslim minority has killed more than 240 people and forced about 140,000 out of their homes since 2012. Most of the dead and displaced are Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Burmese service.