Around 600 people in Myanmar's restive Rakhine state have protested a government decision to give 53 Muslims official identification cards, saying the move was illegal.
The protests on Monday in Sittwe and Maungdaw underscore the difficulty Myanmar faces as it attempts to deal with ethnic strife in the country where the largely Muslim Rohingya people are considered illegal immigrants.
Leaders of the protests in Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital where about 400 people demonstrated, and Maungdaw, where there were about 200 demonstrators, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that local people should be part of any government review for Muslim people who are given the official IDs.
“Only the local residents know about these Muslims’ backgrounds,” said Thein Tan, who led the protests in Sittwe. “Government officials don’t know about them. They worked on this citizenship process without discussing it with local residents.”
Immigration officials told protest leaders that they were following orders when they gave out the IDs, but they refused to elaborate on those orders, demonstrator Aung Htay told RFA.
Kyawt Sein, a protestor in Sittwe, said that she wasn’t necessarily opposed to Muslims receiving the identity cards, but she accused local officials of keeping the decision secret.
“The most powerful and responsible man in Rakhine state is the chief minister, and the chief minister didn’t say anything about giving ID Cards to Muslims,” she said. “The Border Affairs Minister didn’t say anything about it as well.”
While Kyawt Sein told RFA that she wasn’t opposed to Muslims receiving an ID, she drew the line at the Rohyingas.
“It is OK to give IDs to people who have Myanmar citizen parents, but it is very dangerous for Rakhine ethnics,” she said.
The protestors told RFA that the government should confiscate the ID cards and take action against government officials who gave ID cards to the 53 Muslims.
“If they have already given illegal ID cards to Muslims, please withdraw them,” Saw Thein Tan said.
The government of Myanmar does not recognize refugees as citizens. Officials in that country often refer to them as “Bengalis” who have illegally crossed the border from Bangladesh.
A military crackdown in Rakhine in recent months has caused at least 66,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to southeastern Bangladesh.
Newly arrived Rohingya refugees have reported witnessing cases of killings, rapes, and acts of arson carried out by Burmese security forces against their people, allegations that Myanmar’s government has denied.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.