YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Authorities sealed off villages for months in Myanmar's only Muslim-majority region and in some cases beat and arrested people who refused to register with immigration officials, residents and activists say, in what may be the most aggressive effort yet to compel Rohingya to identify themselves as migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Immigration officials, border guards and members of the illegal-alien task force in the northern tip of Rakhine state — home to 90 percent of the country's 1.3 million Rohingya — said they were simply updating family lists, as they have in the past. But this year, in addition to questions about marriages, deaths and births, people were classified by ethnicity.
The government denies the existence of Rohingya in the country, saying those who claim the ethnicity are actually Bengalis. Residents said those who refused to take part suffered the consequences.
"We are trapped," Khin Maung Win said last week. He said authorities started setting up police checkpoints outside his village, Kyee Kan Pyin, in mid-September, preventing people from leaving even to shop for food in local markets, work in surrounding paddies or bring children to school.
"If we don't have letters and paperwork showing we took part — that we are Bengali — we can't leave," he said.
Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, which has been advocating on behalf of the Rohingya for more than a decade, said residents reported incidents of violence and abuse in at least 30 village tracts from June to late September. While blockades have since been lifted, arrests continue, with dozens of Rohingya men being rounded up for alleged ties to Islamic militants in the last week.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation, surprised the world in 2011 when a half-century of military rule ended and President Thein Sein, a former general, started steering the country toward democracy. Critics, however, say reforms have stalled. Peaceful protesters are again being thrown in jail; journalists increasingly face intimidation, or even imprisonment with hard labor.
Most worrying to many, the government has largely stood by as Buddhist extremists have targeted Rohingya, sometimes with machetes and bamboo clubs, saying they pose a threat to the country's culture and traditions.
Denied citizenship by national law, even though many of their families arrived in Myanmar from Bangladesh generations ago, members of the religious minority are effectively stateless, wanted by neither country. They feel they are being systematically erased.
Almost all Rohingya were excluded from a U.N.-funded nationwide census earlier this year, the first in three decades, because they did not want to register as Bengalis. And Thein Sein is considering a "Rakhine Action Plan" that would make people who identify themselves as Rohingya not only ineligible for citizenship but candidates for detainment and possible deportation.
Most Rohingya have lived under apartheid-like conditions in northern Rakhine for decades, with limited access to adequate health care, education and jobs, as well as restrictions on travel and the right to practice their faith.
In 2012, Buddhist extremists killed up to 280 people and displaced tens of thousands of others. About 140,000 people of those forced from their homes continue to languish in crowded displacement camps further south, outside Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital.
Tensions surrounding the family registration campaign in northern Rakhine rose steadily after it began four months ago, with most of the resistance felt in Maungdaw township.
Many villages were placed under lockdown, with police checkpoints set up to make sure only those who have cooperated could leave, more than a dozen residents confirmed in telephone interviews with The Associated Press.
In other villages, the names of influential residents were posted on community boards with verbal warnings that they face up to two years in jail if they fail to convince others to take part in the registration process, Lewa said. Other Rohingya say officials forced them to sign the papers at gunpoint, or threatened that they would end up in camps like those outside Sittwe if they didn't comply, she said. In some cases residents say authorities have shown up after midnight and broken down doors to catch residents by surprise and pressure them to hand over family lists.
Villagers also have been kicked and beaten with clubs and arrested for refusing to take part, according to Lewa and residents interviewed by the AP.
Lewa said that when authorities ended the blockades, they also stopped the registration campaign.
Rohingya said they didn't want to register family members because they worry the information might be used to deny them citizenship.
As international pressure mounts to end abuses against Rohingya, the government has agreed to provide citizenship to anyone who qualifies. But many Rohingya say they cannot meet the requirements, which include submitting documents proving that their families have been in Myanmar for at least three generations. And under the plan Thein Sein is considering, even that would not be enough for people who insist on calling themselves Rohingya rather than Bengali.
Myanmar Information Minister Ye Htut did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Win Myaing, a spokesman for Rakhine state government, said authorities' effort to update family lists had an added sense of urgency because of concerns that Islamic extremists could try to slip across the border from neighboring Bangladesh.
It was unclear whether there was a specific threat from a new regional al-Qaida wing or Rohingya Solidarity Organization militants.
"We have to know who's who," Myaing said. "We want to know who are strangers and who are not?"
He did not comment on the allegations of abuses.
As to why the government insisted on calling the villagers Bengali, Myaing said, "Because they are Bengali. What else should we call them?"
Soe Myint Tun, the director of the immigration office of Kyee Kan Pyin, agreed.
"We are only checking the villagers' family household lists and their identification cards. That's all," he said. "There are no 'Rohingya' in this country and the government has said that as well. We are just doing what we have to do."
AP writer Esther Htusan contributed to this report from Yangon.