Rakhine’s other Muslims seek liberation via identification
LIKE their better-known fellow followers of Islam who self-identify as Rohingya, minority Kaman Muslims are hopeful that their lives will improve under the National League for Democracy government.
The distinction between the two Muslim groups – the former largely stateless, the latter ostensibly recognised as entitled to the rights of full citizenship – has been more theory than reality for thousands of Kaman who have struggled to obtain identity cards and are often subject to some of the same restrictions that the persecuted Rohingya have endured.
Kaman politicians are working to change that, however, with a renewed push to see national ID cards issued to those who lack them. A meeting to discuss ID issuance to Kaman Muslims in Sittwe is slated with a local immigration officer in the coming days.
“We got an appointment with the local immigration officer to discuss ID cards for the Kaman from Sittwe. Around 2000 Kaman applied for ID cards in 2014 but only 38 people got the ID card,” said U Tin Hlaing Win, general secretary of the Kaman National Development Party (KNDP).
Young Kaman delegates to an Ethnic Youth Conference held at the end of last month raised the issue at that forum, telling The Myanmar Times that being mistaken for “Bengalis” – a term many use to describe the Rohingya, implying they are illegal immigrants – could prevent Kaman Muslims from freely travelling.
“As far as I’m concerned, our biggest problem is getting national ID cards to prove that we are Kaman, to travel freely for education or business matters,” said Ko Sett Paing Soe of the Kaman Youth Alert Association. “After the conflict in Rakhine [State], the situation became worse than before.”
More than 100,000 people, mostly Rohingya but also populations of Kaman and Rakhine Buddhists, were displaced by the 2012 violence, which pitted the state’s majority Buddhists against its minority Muslims.
“We are ethnic Kaman, from among the 135 ethnic groups recognised by the government. We are so sad because people are thinking of us as Bengali,” said Ma Aye Myat Mon, a 25-year-old ethnic Kaman woman, referring to the fact that Kaman are enumerated as one of Myanmar’s “official” ethnicities, while self-identifying Rohingya are not.
U Tin Hlaing Win said there was reason for optimism under the new government, with ID cards recently issued to Kaman Muslims in the island town of Rambre.
“Now the NLD government gave ID cards to Kaman people from Rambre. That’s a basic right of ethnic people. We are not foreigners,” he said.
In a paper presented at the Ethnic Youth Conference last month, the Kaman delegates said most Kaman people from Rambre continue to live in IDP camps, as they have done since the 2012 conflict.
U Tin Hlaing Win added, “It’s an important matter to get ID cards for people who live in Rakhine, a conflict zone of religious and Bengali affairs. We Kaman are a minority group among the Rakhine and Bengalis. If we can’t prove ourselves as Kaman, they will call us Bengali or Indian. We need strong identifying proof.”
In Thandwe township, about 4000 Kaman people have applied to be scrutinised and issued IDs. Most ethnic Kaman in Rakhine State live in Sittwe, Kyaukphyu and Thandwe townships, as well as Yanbye town.
Estimates of how many Kaman live in Myanmar vary widely, with official figures from the 2014 census not yet released.
More than 100,000 people are thought to hold government-issued national ID cards identifying them as Kaman, but U Aye Maung, a former MP and chair of the Arakan National Party, said the existence of “fake Kaman” skewed that figure.
“They are recognised as a minority of Rakhine’s people who believe in Islam. They should have the right to be protected but official population numbers are suspect,” U Aye Maung said.
KNDP research in 2013 estimated the Kaman population to be about 50,000. The party’s general secretary shed some light on what may be one reason for the discrepancies.
“According to our research and knowledge tracing family trees, some Kaman identity card holders were Rakhine plus Bengali or Rakhine plus Indian, not Kaman. It [identity problems] should be solved by three groups – we Kaman, the Rakhine and immigration authorities. This problem shouldn’t be blamed only on Kaman people,” said U Tin Hlaing Win.
Even ID-holding Kaman sometimes saw rights denied under the previous junta.
“During the military government period, the military by force ordered that Kaman people did not have the right to travel like other nationalities; we’ve needed Form No 4 even though we have genuine national ID cards,” said U Tin Hlaing Win, referring to a document allowing travel.
“Now the new government has brought some changes for travelling around the country but there are still problems because transportation isn’t government-owned. We are just demanding our ethnic rights. We should enjoy equal rights as other ethnic people do,” he added.
‘As far as I’m concerned, our biggest problem is getting national ID cards to prove that we are Kaman.’
Ko Sett Paing Soe Kaman youth activist