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US urges Myanmar to scrap controversial Rohingya plan

Plan offers citizenship to those who identify as ‘Bengali,’ a term implying minority are illegal immigrants

United States officials called on Myanmar Thursday to scrap a controversial plan that aims to force minority Rohingya Muslims to identify as Bengalis, and urged the government to draw up a new plan to allow the stateless group to become citizens.

The Myanmar government’s Rakhine State Action Plan offers the chance of citizenship to roughly 1 million Rohingya, who have been targeted by Buddhist extremists in waves of mob violence that erupted in Rakhine state in 2012.

But they will only be eligible if they identify themselves as “Bengali,” a term favored by the government because it implies the group are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – despite evidence they have lived in Myanmar for generations.

The Rohingya reject the term, but those who refuse to register with it will face being deported or placed in detention camps.

"We would like to see a new plan that will allow the Rohingya to become citizens through a normal process without having to do that type of self-identification,” said U.S. security adviser Ben Rhodes during a regional summit attended by President Barack Obama in Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw.

He added that the plan violates “universal rights.”

Officials in Myanmar have strongly objected to the use of the term Rohingya by foreign aid agencies and governments.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was scolded Wednesday by Myanmar’s minister for Rakhine State for using the term during a press conference in Nay Pyi Taw.

Major General Maung Maung Ohn said in a letter to Ban that “the term ‘Rohingya’ has fostered distrust” and “led to a greater divide between the Rakhine and the Bengali populations as well as between the Myanmar people and the international community.”

Ban had urged Myanmar’s leaders to “uphold human rights, take a strong stance against incitement, and ensure humanitarian access to Rohingya” during the press conference.

Around 140,000 people are confined to squalid camps on the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, following riots in 2012.

They, along with most other Rohingya in the state, are subject to apartheid-like restrictions.

While Buddhists are permitted to move freely through checkpoints, Rohingya are often forced to pay large bribes to guards, and struggle to get official permission to move between towns - even for medical emergencies.

The U.N. has described the minority as one of the most persecuted in the world.