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Two locals from the Arakan capital Sittwe have been sentenced to three months in jail for staging an unauthorised protest against a Turkish government-backed plan to build housing for displaced Rohingyas.
“We learnt that Nyo Aye and Kyaw Soe were each sentenced to three months in prison by the court around noon today [Tuesday],” said Khine Pray Soe, general secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Development, adding that they had repeatedly requested permission to stage a protest from the authorities.
“They sought permission with local authorities to demand that [the government] only build houses for those who are verified as citizens under the 1982 Citizenship Law,” said Khine Pray Soe, referring to the legislation which renders most Muslim Rohingyas stateless.
It followed reports in March that the Turkish government had offered to help build 5,000 houses for Rohingya Muslims, who bore the brunt of two bouts of ethno-religious clashes with Arakanese Buddhists in 2012. Hundreds of Arakanese protested the move, which they said would provide permanent settlements for the Rohingya – who they view as illegal Bengali immigrants and want expelled from the state.
The government subsequently backed down and rejected the housing plan, with a government spokesperson accusing non-displaced Rohingyas of “sneaking” into camps at night in order to obtain housing assistance from Turkey.
But 22 Arakanese locals from Sittwe, Kyaukphyu and Buthidaung townships were later charged under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for their role in leading the protests.
International aid groups and foreign governments have been treated with suspicion by many Arakanese Buddhists, who believe they are biased in favour of the Rohingya, and have openly blocked the delivery of lifesaving aid to the Muslim minority.
The Turkish government has been seen as particularly controversial due to its links with the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which sparked nationwide protests last year after it offered to set up a humanitarian liaison office in Sittwe.
UN agencies also faced a furious backlash over plans to relocate Rohingya ahead of the rainy season, even though thousands of fragile settlements were at risk of being swept away by the tides.
Some 150,000 people, mostly Muslim Rohingyas, were displaced during two bouts of sectarian riots in Arakan state last year, which exposed deep-rooted religious fissures.
The 800,000 Rohingya Muslims, who have been described as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities by the UN, were stripped of citizenship by the former military junta and are denied basic rights, including freedom to travel, marry and access education.