Burma's electoral commission has ordered a newly formed political party to expel six of its senior members for listing their ethnicity as "Rohingya" in their official biographies, according to party members.
Earlier this month, the Union Election Commission (UEC) forced the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), which was formed in March this year, to oust six of its central executive committee members for allegedly being "non-citizens".
UEC director Tin Maung Cho told DVB that the six members had "breached" existing regulations for political parties as the Muslim Rohingya are not recognised as an official ethnic group in Burma.
According to Article 10(a) of the Political Parties Registration Law, a person can only become a political party member if they qualify as a Burmese citizen, an associate citizen, a naturalised citizen or a temporary certificate holder.
"They were listed as the 'Rohingya', which is not recognised by the state," said Tin Maung Cho. "Foreigners are not allowed to take part in political parties," he said, backing the government-held view that the Muslim minority are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
He added that the UEC had instructed the party to submit biographies of all other members of their central executive committee.
But the DHRP chairperson, Kyaw Min, insisted that members had already listed as "Rohingya" before the party was formally registered in March, but no issues had been raised at the time.
"We had to submit members' biographies when we applied for the party registration and they were listed as [Rohingyas]," said Kyaw Min. "Now the [UEC] is asking us to re-submit everyone's biographies."
It appears that the six members are being regarded as "non-citizens" simply on the basis of calling themselves "Rohingya" – a term the government rejects – although they are likely to hold Burmese citizenship. "We have to look into this," said Kyaw Min.
The term Rohingya is heavily disputed in Burma, with state officials and most Burmese people referring to the group as "Bengali". But the Muslim group, which comprises some 800,000 people mainly residing in northwestern Burma's Arakan state, insists the term had been used for centuries until the military junta stripped them of their citizenship in 1982.
Earlier this year, Shwe Maung, a self-proclaimed Rohingya MP from Maungdaw township, stirred controversy by calling for official recognition of the term, and prompted some nationalist groups to call for his citizenship to be "investigated".
The Burmese government was recently implicated in ethnic cleansing against the stateless group, which has been described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
But state officials have remained unrepentant. "How can it be ethnic cleansing? They are not an ethnic group," Arakan state spokesman Win Myaing told Reuters this week.
The DHRP has played a vocal role in defending the rights of the Rohingya, which is likely to have irked members of Burma's political elite. Both reformist President Thein Sein and opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, have come under fire for refusing to speak up for the predominantly stateless minority.
Its chairman, Kyaw Min, originally won a seat in parliament for Buthidaung, northern Arakan state, in the annulled 1990 elections and has since worked with Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.
He was sentenced to 47 years in prison in 2005 for championing labour rights, but was released in a general amnesty in January 2012.