Nirmal Ghosh, Indochina Bureau Chief In Bangkok

Ray of hope for the Rohingya

Pink is best, but green will do just as well. Both colours represent citizenship for Myanmar's minority Muslim Rohingya.

A camp for the displaced, housing some 3,000 residents in Myebon town in Rakhine state, has been chosen for a pilot project that offers citizenship, only if they meet certain conditions.

More than 1,000 have applied for the identity cards. If they can prove they were born in Myanmar before 1982 and, depending on how many generations of ancestors they can prove lived in what is now Myanmar, they will get either a pink card, the colour denoting full citizenship, or a green one, for naturalised citizens. The latter category gives them freedom to move around the country, but comes with restricted political rights and can be revoked. 

But there is one overriding condition to citizenship: the Rohingya must not identify themselves as "Rohingya". Register as "Bengali", the government tells them, and your cases will be reviewed.

The story of the Rohingya is of a people trapped in the politically correct box of their own identity.

The mess that Myanmar's quasi-civilian government, still in a fragile transition to democracy after decades of iron-fisted military rule, has inherited is just one of the end-results of centuries of land and sea migrations, and the setting of post-colonial political boundaries.  The Rohingya are, broadly speaking, ethnically South Asian, from the Chittagong region of Bangladesh.

In Rakhine state today,  there are three main Muslim communities - indigenous Kaman, Rakhine Muslims whose ancestors have been there for several generations, and historically more recent settlers who began to assume and emphasise their Rohingya identity in the 1940s. 

After Myanmar became independent in 1948, its democratic government accepted the Rohingya, of which there are more than one million in Rakhine state. 

When the army took over in the 1960s, it superimposed a brand of Islamophobia on the already complex history and politics of Rakhine state, and the Rohingya were left out of the national idea of Myanmar.

That, ironically, drove them to cling even more tightly to their Rohingya identity, which they later converted into a legal claim to put them on par with the country's 135 recognised ethnic minorities.

Ms Chris Lewa of the advocacy group Arakan Project said: "Of course (the name Rohingya) is blocking the dialogue. But they insist on it so much because there is nowhere else to go."

Rohingya activist groups abroad have put the identity issue front and centre. But this clashes with the nationalism of the over three million Rakhine Buddhists who are the majority in the state.

Like the Rohingya, Rakhine Buddhists have their own sense of victimhood. In 1784, their Rakhine kingdom was defeated by the Burmans or "Bamars".  

The Rakhine Buddhists feel squeezed between the majority Burmans to the east, and Muslim- majority Bangladesh to the west. They also feel left out of international humanitarian aid, which goes mainly to the Rohingya.  

The issue has also to be seen in the context of right-wing Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Right-wing radicals in both countries cite a so-called "existential crisis in Buddhism" and identify Islam as a threat. 

There are undeniably also deep-seated cultural prejudices and even racism in the mix. 

In 2009, a Myanmar diplomat in Hong Kong shocked the diplomatic community when he called "dark brown" Rohingya "ugly as ogres" in an e-mail. 

Multiple layers of prejudice are at work, and the narratives have been hijacked by radicals on both sides. "The problems faced by Rakhine state are rooted in decades of armed violence, authoritarian rule and state-society conflict," says an International Crisis Group report released this week.

This political reality means the central government has to tread carefully. 

Last month at the Myebon camp, citizenship cards were given to 209 people, including 40 Rohingya.

For the Rohingya, the only thing standing in the way of their becoming a Myanmar citizen  is the term "Rohingya". And the government, dealing on the one hand with radical Rakhine Buddhists and with right-wing Burman Buddhists on the other, has made it clear it will not budge from its position.

Yet not all Rohingya insist on the label, especially those in the southern part of the state. And the central government is plodding on with the verification process. 

Speaking on the phone to The Straits Times from New York, Mr Vijay Nambiar, the UN Secretary- General's special envoy to Myanmar, said: "The minister of population, Mr Khin Yi, has mentioned publicly to various people, to the international community and the US, that there is no reason to believe that most of the 1.2 to 1.3 million 'Bengalis' in that region are there illegally."  

Even those who get the treasured IDs face grave uncertainties. For one thing, citizenship does not guarantee an end to discrimination. Some Rohingya fear that allowing themselves to be tagged  "Bengali" could lead to their being regarded as foreigners and deported.  

Still, the Myebon exercise offers a glimmer of hope for a group of people whose only other choice is permanent incarceration in squalid camps. 

One Muslim woman in the Myebon camp told The Irrawaddy news magazine recently: "We need to agree to whatever they recognise us as, because we have two children… We have to worry for them." 

The Myebon experiment shows that some are willing to sacrifice their political identity - and grasp at the straw of hope. 

nirmal@sph.com.sg