Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The Myanmar government has drafted a plan that will give about a million members of the persecuted Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority a bleak choice: accept ethnic "reclassification" and the prospect of citizenship, or be detained.
Most of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya already live in apartheid-like conditions in western Rakhine state where they have to apply to local authorities for permission to travel between villages or go out into the fields to farm.
Even today at least 140,000 internally displaced people live in camps following sectarian violence with Rakhine Buddhists in 2012 (which left at least 200 people dead), on which the Catholic Church in Burma spoke out on several occasions.
Myanmar's government and Myanmar people refer to the Rohingya as Bengalis, viewing them as "illegal immigrants" from neighbouring Bangladesh. Yet, most of them have lived in the country for generations and have been fighting to have their rights recognised.
Many Rohingya lost documents in the widespread violence, or have previously refused to register as "Bengalis", as required by the government under the new plan, because they say the term implies they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The plan says one of its aims is to promote peaceful coexistence and prevent sectarian tension and conflict. However, human rights advocates say it could potentially put thousands of Rohingya, including those living in long-settled villages, at risk of indefinite detention.
Accepting the term Bengali could leave the Rohingya vulnerable, should authorities in future attempt to send them to Bangladesh as illegal immigrants, said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.
"One of human rights' core principles is the right to determine one's ethnic and social identity, and this is precisely what Myanmar's government is doggedly denying the Rohingya," he said. And this is why the latter refuse to be labelled as Bengali.