ANXIOUS ROHINGYA GRAPPLE WITH AN IDENTIFICATION DILEMMA
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.”
Documenting undocumented people in Rakhine State.