MYEBON, Burma — This summer uniformed immigration workers descended on a squalid refugee camp in one of the remotest parts of Burma, a township called Myebon that is best accessible by boat.
Once, majority Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims lived peacefully together here, but the Rohingya have been closed off in a refugee camp for more than two years after a wave of religious violence swept the country, leaving thousands displaced. As part of a plan to mitigate a humanitarian crisis that has brought international condemnation, the Burmese government is now trying to register the long-persecuted Rohingya as official citizens.
The catch? To be accepted, they must provide extensive documentation and renounce the term Rohingya — embraced by an estimated 1 million people — and allow themselves to be listed as another ethnicity. If they refuse, they could be placed in detention camps and shipped to another country, according to an early draft of the plan.
“I have been Rohingya for 66 years,” said Albella, a resident who uses only one name. She wept as she described workers forcing her to lie on her citizenship application. “It’s more than a betrayal,” she said. “I no longer trust my own identity.”
Obama administration officials say the Rohingya crisis is a top priority for President Obama as he heads to Burma this week for an Asian summit. Obama earlier spoke to President Thein Sein and urged the government to revise its plan and take measures “to support the civil and political rights of the Rohingya population,” according to the White House.
The Obama administration has backed efforts by Burma, also known as Myanmar, to move from a military regime toward democracy, nearly doubling the amount of aid and easing economic sanctions. But the transition has been marred by rising anti-Muslim sentiment, unresolved ethnic insurgencies and slow progress on constitutional reform.
About 135,000 Rohingya in the western state of Rakhine are still being held — ostensibly for their own safety — as virtual prisoners in camps with scarce food, water and health care. Leaders say dozens have died, many from preventable conditions such as malnutrition.
U.S. officials have been troubled by the citizenship verification project, said Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Burmese authorities are pressuring the Rohingya to say they are Bengali, a term the government prefers because it considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations.
“It’s good that they say they want to legalize as much of the Rohingya population as possible, but the way they have gone about it so far creates a potentially bigger problem, since they’ve required Rohingya to self-identify as Bengali, which most find offensive and many will not do,” Malinowski said.
Khin Soe, director of the state’s immigration department, dismisses criticism that the government is violating the Rohingya’s rights or trying to force them out of Burma. “It is not true. This is just their concerns and worries,” Khin Soe said. “We are just verifying the citizenship. Our job is to classify the citizens and noncitizens and to make them have some kind of legal identity.”
Human Rights Watch and the Rohingya themselves have accused the Burmese government of a campaign of ethnic cleansing, a charge the government denies.
“What is happening is no accident,” said Kyaw Min, a Rohingya leader. “It is a deliberate, intentional plan to finish the existence of the Rohingya.”
The Rohingya have lived for centuries in the predominantly Buddhist Southeast Asian nation of more than 55 million people, but they were long persecuted by Burma’s brutal military junta.
A 1982 citizenship law rendered them virtually stateless. The government is now pushing to verify as many Rohingya as possible using that law’s strict requirements, which include proof of family records dating back three generations. The plan also proposes a large-scale resettlement of the refugees by next spring.
Conditions for the Rohingya are so desperate that more than 87,000 have made the dangerous exodus on handmade boats to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in the past two years. Many fear that if they can’t prove they are citizens, they will be rounded up into detention camps and killed, Kyaw Min said.
Once on the water, the refugees face human traffickers, injury or death.
“I’m not scared,” said Khin Maung Than, 39, a Rohingya who is building a boat to take his family to Malaysia. “The situation here is worse than the sea. Let me die there.”
The trouble in Myebon township started two years ago, during the Buddhist-Muslim violence sparked by the alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men.
Right-wing Buddhists blocked the Muslims from going to the market, told their fishermen to come in from the sea and kept their village surrounded for more than five months. Every day, the trapped people could hear a Buddhist monk exhorting people over a loudspeaker to keep up the blockade to starve the Muslims to death.
Ultimately, the impasse erupted in violence in which Buddhist mobs torched homes and blinded people with arrows, said Cho Cho, a leader in the camp.
“We had been living in a village with these people for years,” she said. “We drink the same water, live on the same land. Now the students were throwing rocks at their Muslim teacher.”
Cho Cho keeps a book of the dead with the names carefully lettered in curly script — the 25 who died that day, the two who were killed later when they tried to go to the river to fish, and the 54 who have died in the camp since the government moved them there in November 2012.
More than 3,000 Muslims now live in the Myebon camp, cut off from the outside world. Government health workers come five days a week, but there is no emergency service. Most subsist on rations from the World Food Program. They are low on firewood because they cut down all the trees. They have had no soap or sanitation supplies for months.
That’s why, when immigration workers showed up, some Rohingya were willing to give in to the demand that they be called Bengali. They dream of being able to move freely once again, Cho Cho said. Immigration officials who visited and made speeches early on were quite convincing in their arguments, she said.
“They said, ‘You should not see the short term, only see the long term,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘Look at the faces of your children and grandchildren.’ ”
About 1,100 ended up applying. So far, 40 have been able to provide enough documentation to be granted citizenship; 169 others were given naturalized citizenship. The fate of the rest is unclear.
“Our question is the noncitizens. Where will they be taken?” said Khin Thein of the Rakhine Women’s Network, which opposes the citizenship drive.
Hla Shwe, 44, said that Rakhine Buddhist leaders had earlier threatened to cut off their food and water if they did not start using the term Bengali instead of Rohingya.
“We tried our utmost not to apply with the Bengali identity, but we were fearful, so in September we applied,” Hla Shwe
said. “I feel as if I was a tree that was uprooted. For so many days I was unable to take a regular meal.”
Hla Shwe and Cho Cho sat in front of a bamboo shelter, under an overhang to escape the hot sun, as residents from the camp toted water and one neighbor rocked a baby in a swing handmade from a tarp.
A woman named Nu Har Bi came by to show off her new citizenship card, which lists her as Bengali, even though she is Rohingya. Despite the fact that she had been granted full citizenship, she has been unable to leave the camp, she said.
“This is the question we want to know,” she said. “Has the government tricked us?”