Why Myanmar's Rohingya are forced to say they are Bengali

Ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar who are being held in squalid camps and even beaten have been told there's one way out: identify themselves as Bengali.

Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP
An internally displaced Rohingya woman held her newborn baby surrounded by children in the foreground of makeshift tents at a camp for Rohingya people in Sittwe, northwestern Rakhine State, Myanmar, in May 2013.

It was just after 3 a.m. when the police kicked in Zia Ul Haq's door, then handcuffed and dragged him to the nearby railway tracks. Then the beatings began.

Police with batons struck him and nine other Rohingya Muslims in handcuffs on the head and back, says Mr. Zia Ul Haq and three witnesses, some of whom also claim to have been beaten. "If you say you are Rohingya we will beat you," the officer told him. "You have to say you are a Bengali."

To do so would be to deny what Zia Ul Haq and hundreds of thousands of other Muslims in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State consider to be their ethnic identity. Instead of "Rohingya," the government and state authorities refer to them as "Bengali," a term suggesting they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The May 6 raid by dozens of police and soldiers represents the dark side of Myanmar's celebrated transition to democracy: The government continues to take a heavy-handed approach to resolving longstanding tensions between ethnic groups, a situation that's worsened with looser controls over online speech. 

The United Nations says close to 140,000 Rohingya remain displaced after clashes with the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist population drove them from their homes last year. The government has elected to keep them living in apartheid-like conditions, segregated from the Rakhines, in camps they are not allowed to leave for their own security. The government's plan for eventual resettlement requires a registration process under which Rohingya are designated as "Bengali." But many Rohingya are refusing to be registered even if it means they might be resettled from the squalid temporary camps where they now live.

"The Myanmar government's response to Rohingya displacement has been guided by segregationist policies that perpetuate inter-communal tensions,” said Melanie Teff of Refugees international in a May 30 statement to launch a critical report on the government’s treatment of Rohingya. 

Most Rohingya, even those whose families have been in Myanmar – also known as Burma – for generations, are denied citizenship under a 1982 law that renders them stateless. Human Rights Watch accused security forces of failing to prevent – and in some cases participating in – atrocities against Rohingya during clashes last year with the state's ethnic Rakhine Buddhist population.

Violence last June and October left at least 192 people dead, mostly Rohingya. Sittwe’s former population of about 73,000 Rohingya has now dwindled to 5,000 people confined in one neighborhood, guarded by security forces. The vast majority of displaced Rohingya are still living in temporary camps.

Three stage plan

The Rohingya men arrested May 6 were apparently detained in connection to a protest over a government registration program that required them to state their identities as Bengali.

Zia Ul Haq and the nine others were released just before dawn. But four more villagers were shackled and driven an hour to the Rakhine capital, Sittwe, where they were detained at a police station without charge for 10 days in abject conditions.

"I got only water, no food," says Fazil Ahmad.

Officers at the police station and the district police headquarters denied all knowledge of the arrests. But another officer, who refused to provide his name, said the villagers had been brought in for questioning about an April 26 demonstration at a camp for displaced Rohingya during which a soldier was injured.

The Rohingya were protesting a registration process that the government was carrying out before implementing a resettlement program.

Building temporary shelters is part of a three-step plan to resettle the displaced, says Hla Han, the state minister for development affairs. Afterward, it will create jobs in industries like fishing and agriculture, then permanently resettle the displaced in locations to be determined in talks between ethnic leaders, government officials, and aid groups.

Mr. Hla Han declined to offer a timeline for the plan.

“We need to take time, we can’t say exactly,” he says. “Even the first stage is not settled yet.”

Denial of identity

As part of the government’s resettlement plan, officials were to go to camps to compile a list of displaced people and where they were from. But the list required Rohingyas to identify themselves as “Bengali." When officials tried to survey displaced people in camps around Theak Kae Pyin village, protests broke out with women and children chanting, “We are Rohingya.”

Hla Han says a soldier suffered a concussion after being hit in the head with a stick. A border police officer and a civilian official suffered bruises, he says.

Aung Kyaw Win, an administrator elected to represent several villages including Nga Pon Gyee and Nga Pon Shay, says the police told him they conducted the raid after hearing that protest organizers were hiding there.

But Fious Ahmad says he was never questioned about the protests while being held in jail without food, a bed, or even a blanket to sleep on.

"I don’t know why the police seized me," he says in an interview outside Nga Pon Shay's mosque a day after his release. "The police said to me, 'Say you're Bengali.' I told them, ‘Yes, I'm Bengali.' But the police beat me anyway."

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