Myanmar confirms controversial Rohingya plan of detention camp at United Nations

New York,Reuters: Myanmar has confirmed to the United Nations it is finalizing a plan that will offer minority Rohingya Muslims citizenship if they change their ethnicity to suggest Bangladeshi origin, a move rights groups say could force thousands into detention camps.

Myanmar confirms controversial Rohingya plan of detention camp at United Nations

Rohingya Muslims attend a wrestling festival at Kyaukpannu village in Maungdaw, northern Rakhine state, June 6, 2014. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine state on the western coast of the predominantly Buddhist country. Almost 140,000 Rohingya remain displaced after deadly clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.

Reuters reported at the weekend that the national government had drafted a plan that will give members of the persecuted Rohingya minority a bleak choice: accept ethnic reclassification and the prospect of citizenship, or be detained.

“An action plan is being finalised and will soon be launched,” Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, requesting the United Nations to “provide much-needed development assistance there”.

“We are working for peace, stability, harmony and development of all people in Rakhine state,” he said.

It was the first public reference to the controversial plan, which the government has been drafting largely in secret, to the extent that humanitarian workers have until recently been shown only hard copies.

The Rakhine State Action Plan outlines projects including rebuilding homes for displaced people, improving health care and education, and promoting reconciliation, according to a draft obtained by Reuters.

More controversially, the plan contains a section on a process to determine whether Rohingya are citizens. Rohingya would be required to register their identities as Bengali, a term most reject because it implies they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite having lived in the area for generations.

The plan proposes that authorities “construct temporary camps in required numbers for those who refuse to be registered and those without adequate documents”.

It states that the government will ask the U.N. Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, for help to resettle overseas those who fail to obtain citizenship.

Myanmar's Minister for Foreign Affairs Wunna Maung Lwin addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York September 29, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

But a UNHCR spokeswoman told Reuters it would be impossible for the agency to do so, because they would not be “recognized refugees who have fled persecution and conflict across international borders”.

That raises the possibility that Rohingya could be forced from their villages and detained indefinitely, warned Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.

“This plan is profoundly troubling because it would strip the Rohingya of their rights, systematically lock them down in closed camps in what amounts to arbitrary, indefinite detention,” he said.

Human rights groups condemned on Friday a Myanmar government plan that could force thousands of minority Rohingya Muslims into detention camps indefinitely if they do not qualify for citizenship.

The U.S. and some other embassies in Myanmar had raised their concern with the government about some aspects of the plan, a U.S. official told Reuters.

Most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims live in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine state on the west coast of the predominantly Buddhist country, and almost 140,000 are displaced after deadly clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.

The government has refused to grant most Rohingya citizenship and refers to them as Bengali, which implies they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite having lived in Myanmar for generations.

The Rakhine State Action Plan will require Rohingya to identify themselves as Bengali – a term most reject – in order to possibly receive citizenship.

According to a draft of the plan obtained by Reuters, the government has proposed that authorities “construct temporary camps in required numbers for those who refuse to be registered and those without adequate documents”.

Rights groups warn that the provisions could force thousands of Rohingya from their villages into camps where they would be detained indefinitely.

“It is nothing less than a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness that appears designed to strip the Rohingya of hope and force them to flee the country,” Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Friday.

Putting Rohingya in internment camps would constitute a “crime against humanity”, New York-based Physicians for Human Rights said in a separate statement.

“It certainly fits into the government’s decades-long tradition of marginalising and dehumanizing the Rohingya,” said Gregory Polling, of the Center for Strategic International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank.

He said the citizenship verification programme was likely to leave hundreds of thousands of Rohingya stateless, because the government “spent decades systematically denying Rohingya the very documents they are now required to provide”.

Even if Rohingya families had documents, many lost them during the 2012 violence, he said.

“The programme cannot possibly succeed,” said Polling.

The United States said its embassy and other embassies in Yangon had received a draft of the plan and had provided feedback to the government.

“We jointly expressed concern over some components of the draft plan, such as the provision stating that those who do not receive citizenship will be held in temporary camps,” a U.S. official said.

The plan includes projects aimed at reconciliation, economic development, and providing accommodation for those who remain displaced by the 2012 violence.

The government will start building infrastructure including roads, houses, schools and clinics this month, and hopes to resettle displaced people before next March when the rainy season begins, Deputy Minister for Border Affairs Major-General Tin Aung Chit told the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper this week.