ANX­IOUS RO­HINGYA GRAP­PLE WITH AN IDEN­TI­FI­CA­TION DILEMMA

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Simon Lewis and John Zaw, in Sit­twe

Hold­ing up a small white card, the only form of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion he has ever pos­sessed, Sul­tan Ahmed is stead­fast. “I will not hand this card over to the au­thor­i­ties,” said the wiry 16-year-old Ro­hingya Mus­lim, in­ter­viewed by ucanews.com in late March at Thae Chaung camp for in­ter­nally dis­placed per­sons in the Rakhine State cap­i­tal, Sit­twe.

Up to 900,000 peo­ple in Myan­mar held the tem­po­rary iden­tify doc­u­ments known as white cards. By pres­i­den­tial de­cree, the cards ex­pired on March 31 and those who hold them have two months to sur­ren­der them to the au­thor­i­ties.

“I’m go­ing to hold onto it, even if it is not valid,” said Sul­tan Ahmed. “I’m afraid that if the gov­ern­ment takes this from me, they might do some­thing to harm me later.”

In June 2012, when the shanties of Sit­twe’s Mus­lim neigh­bour­hoods burned as vi­o­lence raged be­tween Rakhine’s Mus­lim and Bud­dhist com­mu­ni­ties, Sul­tan Ahmed was for­tu­nate to be away from home, vis­it­ing friends in an­other vil­lage.

“My par­ents lost their doc­u­ments in the fire. I only have it be­cause it was in my pocket,” he said. “I still hope that I will be able to use it again in the fu­ture.”

White cards and the claims to cit­i­zen­ship they rep­re­sented are a highly charged po­lit­i­cal is­sue in a coun­try mak­ing a fal­ter­ing tran­si­tion from cen­tralised mil­i­tary rule to democ­racy.

The eth­nic Rakhine Bud­dhist com­mu­nity op­poses the pres­ence in the state of the peo­ple who called them­selves Ro­hingya. Rakhine Bud­dhists – who share with other in­dige­nous eth­nic mi­nori­ties griev­ances about their treat­ment by a Ba­mar-dom­i­nated regime – in­sist that most Mus­lims living in Rakhine are re­cent il­le­gal im­mi­grants from Bangladesh. The Myan­mar gov­ern­ment does not recog­nise the Ro­hingya as one of the coun­try’s 135 “na­tional races” and has blocked most of them from ac­quir­ing cit­i­zen­ship, although many say they have lived in Rakhine for gen­er­a­tions.

Af­ter the Union Par­lia­ment de­cided on Fe­bru­ary 2 to en­fran­chise white card hold­ers for a ref­er­en­dum on con­sti­tu­tional re­form, protests by Rakhine Bud­dhists, monks and other Bud­dhists be­gan im­me­di­ately.

The de­cree to in­val­i­date the cards came within days. In the Fe­bru­ary 11 de­cree, Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein said the cards must be sur­ren­dered within two months of March 31 in a process he promised would be “fair and trans­par­ent”. But some fear that if of­fi­cials try to seize the doc­u­ments, they will risk spark­ing fur­ther un­rest.

In the past, white cards en­abled Ro- hingya to move freely be­tween vil­lages, ac­cess some ed­u­ca­tion and health ser­vices, and of­fered a crumb of hope that they may one day gain cit­i­zen­ship.

But the more than one mil­lion Ro­hingya in Rakhine do not now have much op­por­tu­nity to use iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. In most of the state, seg­re­ga­tion is en­forced by se­cu­rity forces who re­strict their move­ments, and Sit­twe re­mains a town di­vided on eth­nic and re­li­gious lines.

More than 100,000 Ro­hingya IDPs, as well as Ro­hingya host com­mu­ni­ties, are con­fined to a clus­ter of small vil­lages and 20 of­fi­cial camps sited pre­car­i­ously be­tween strictly main­tained po­lice check­points and the Bay of Ben­gal, across which tens of thou­sands have at­tempted a per­ilous es­cape by boat to south­ern Thai­land and Malaysia.

Although most Mus­lims in Sit­twe are be­lieved to hold white cards, the ma­jor­ity re­ject the idea of hand­ing them over to of­fi­cials.

Dur­ing vis­its to camps, ucanews.com re­porters were told by dozens of res­i­dents that they had been un­able to take their cards when they fled their homes in 2012.

“Some peo­ple here have white cards but they won’t tell you they have them,” said U Ba Kyaw, a camp com­mit­tee mem­ber in the sprawl­ing Ohn Daw Gyi camp. The camp is home to about 12,000 peo­ple living in four ad­ja­cent set­tle­ments of 15-me­tre-long huts. Each “long­house” pro­vides cramped quar­ters for 10 fam­i­lies, most of which have at least five mem­bers.

“Peo­ple here are scared they might have to hand their white cards over to the gov­ern­ment and they will be left with no pa­pers,” U Ba Kyaw said, adding that the pres­i­dent’s an­nounce­ment did not spec­ify whether re­place­ment doc­u­ments would be dis­trib­uted. “If the of­fi­cials come, they will say that they don’t have their cards.”

In the eth­nic Rakhine neigh­bour­hoods of Sit­twe, where van­dalised mosques are guarded by po­lice, res­i­dents have raised the Bud­dhist flag out­side their homes to sig­nal op­po­si­tion to vot­ing rights for white card hold­ers. Crude posters de­clare: “We don’t ac­cept the Union Par­lia­ment’s de­ci­sion on the White Card is­sue.”

The Pres­i­dent’s in­ter­ven­tion sug­gests that they will get their way, but Rakhine lead­ers in­sist that the Ro­hingya must be de­nied vot­ing rights in the ref­er­en­dum and in the gen­eral elec­tion due in Novem­ber. The Rakhine, along with the gov­ern­ment and most Myan­mar, re­fer to the Ro­hingya as “Ben­galis” be­cause they be­lieve they are il­le­gal im­mi­grants from Bangladesh.

“Af­ter the re­marks of Pres­i­dent Thein Sein, it is a re­lief for us, but we are still wait­ing,” said for­mer teacher U Than Tun, a lead­ing mem­ber of the Rakhine com­mu­nity, adding that other leg­is­la­tion and elec­toral rules should be amended to ex­clude white card hold­ers from pol­i­tics. “The poster cam­paign is the first step. If the gov­ern­ment al­lows them to vote, we will boy­cott the na­tional elec­tion.”

White cards were ini­tially is­sued be­gin­ning in 1993 as a tem­po­rary mea­sure pending a process to ver­ify res­i­dents’ claims to cit­i­zen­ship against cri­te­ria in Myan­mar’s 1982 Cit­i­zen­ship Law. They are also held by Myan­mar of Chi­nese or In­dian de­scent living through­out the coun­try, but most white card hold­ers are be­lieved to be Ro­hingya.

Many have held the cards for more than two decades, but the ire of Rakhine Bud­dhists was stirred by the mil­i­tary-backed Union Sol­i­dar­ity and Devel­op­ment Party when it is­sued an un­known num­ber of new white cards ahead of the 2010 gen­eral elec­tion. The de­ci­sion by the Na­tional League for Democ­racy to boy­cott the elec­tion en­abled the USDP to win in a land­slide, in­clud­ing most of the seats rep­re­sent­ing Rakhine State.

U Than Tun, who also sits on a state-level com­mit­tee that scru­ti­nises aid projects in Rakhine, said Mus­lims bear re­spon­si­bil­ity for the con­flict in the state. He spoke of al­leged in­ci­dents of rape and at­tacks on Bud­dhists in the Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity north­ern part of the state, which sparked the tit-for-tat at­tacks that have led to claims of eth­nic cleans­ing.

Most mem­bers of the Mus­lim com­mu­nity were not en­ti­tled to cit­i­zen­ship un­der the law, he said. “They are not cit­i­zens. Th­ese peo­ple are lucky to be al­lowed to stay in th­ese camps,” he said. “No other coun­try will ac­cept this Ben­gali com­mu­nity. Why should we?”

While Rakhine lead­ers keep up the pres­sure, au­thor­i­ties in Sit­twe ap­pear to have taken steps to pre­vent the Ro­hingya from or­gan­is­ing them­selves.

In Thetkepyin vil­lage, res­i­dents have re­peat­edly as­serted that they wish to iden­tify as Ro­hingya, de­spite gov­ern­ment ef­forts to deny them that op­tion.

In April 2013 of­fi­cials vis­ited the vil­lage to con­duct a pop­u­la­tion reg­is­tra­tion ex­er­cise. Vil­lage res­i­dent Ibrahim Khalil, 53, said the of­fi­cials ran into trou­ble at the first house, when they asked a teenage boy to con­firm his eth­nic­ity as Ben­gali.

“He said, ‘No, I’m Ro­hingya,’” Ibrahim Khalil re­called. “School was com­ing out at that time and the stu­dents started chant­ing: ‘We are Ro­hingya! We are Ro­hingya!’ Soon, oth­ers joined in and there was a big protest.”

Ibrahim Khalil said that when some peo­ple threw stones at army per­son­nel, Ro­hingya el­der U Kyaw Myint tried to pro­tect the of­fi­cials.

How­ever, U Kyaw Myint, com­mu­nity lead­ers U Ba Thar and U Hla Myint, as well as Ibrahim Khalil’s brother, U Kyaw Khin, 45, were de­tained on charges of “ri­ot­ing,” “caus­ing vol­un­tary griev­ous hurt to a public ser­vant in the dis­charge of his duty” and “ban­ditry”.

Af­ter their con­vic­tion, they each served seven month jail terms be­fore be­ing re­leased in 2014. How­ever, af­ter legal ap­peals by the state, they were re­ar­rested in March and three had their pri­son sen­tences ex­tended to eight years. U Kyaw Khin, who is the of­fi­cial ad­min­is­tra­tor of Thetkepyin, was sen­tenced to an ex­tra five years.

Ibrahim Khalil in­sisted that nei­ther his brother nor the other com­mu­nity lead­ers were vi­o­lent to­ward the of­fi­cials dur­ing the 2013 in­ci­dent. Amnesty In­ter­na­tional has de­clared the four men pris­on­ers of con­science and called for their un­con­di­tional re­lease.

“Th­ese are the lead­ers of this com­mu­nity,” Ibrahim Khalil told ucanews.com. “When there are no lead­ers in the vil­lage, there is con­fu­sion over what to do about the white cards.”

In a state­ment high­light­ing the case, in­ter­na­tional cam­paign­ers For­tify Rights said the charges were “trumped-up”.

“The au­thor­i­ties are send­ing a clear mes­sage to Ro­hingya that any form of re­sis­tance will be met with reprisals,” For­tify Rights ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor Matthew Smith said in the state­ment. “This is a thinly veiled at­tempt to un­der­mine the com­mu­nity’s so­cial and po­lit­i­cal struc­tures. It’s a text­book ex­am­ple of per­se­cu­tion,” he said.

Ra­hana, 41, the wife of the U Kyaw Khin, said her hus­band had been taken away from her for no good rea­son. He is an hon­est man, she told ucanews. com, adding that her hus­band had been se­lected as a the com­mu­nity’s leader by its res­i­dents.

“He’s not a trou­ble­maker,” Ra­hana said. “He’s a sim­ple man, he doesn’t want to be in­volved in any trou­ble. We have five chil­dren and my hus­band has now been taken away twice. This is very painful.”

Photo: EPA

Doc­u­ment­ing un­doc­u­mented peo­ple in Rakhine State.

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