The movement of about 500 people recently awarded citizenship remains restricted by authorities in restive Arakan State, according to the deputy minister of immigration, who was responding to questions on Monday from lawmakers taking a rare stand on behalf of persecuted Muslims in western Burma.
Speaking before Parliament, the immigration official cited concerns over the affected population’s safety as reason for the continued enforcement of a travel ban. Most if not all of those recently granted citizenship are believed to have identified as “Bengali,” the term used by the government to refer to Rohingya Muslims. The government does not recognize the word “Rohingya,” and refuses to allow anyone self-identifying by the term to apply for citizenship.
Lower House lawmakers representing the Arakan National Party (ANP) raised two separate questions related to the newly minted Burmese nationals and the citizenship scrutinizing process of former holders of the temporary identity documents known as white cards.
Pe Than, an Arakanese lawmaker from Myebon constituency, said he was not satisfied with Deputy Immigration Minister Win Myint’s response to his question on freedom of movement for the new citizens.
He told The Irrawaddy that about 500 Muslims residing in Myebon Township were recently granted citizenship, but they have not yet been afforded the right to freely travel in the country.
The largest contingent of white card holders is Rohingya in Arakan State, where communal violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in June 2012 and again in October of that year. The rioting displaced about 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya who have been confined to squalid displacement camps ever since. Their movement is heavily restricted by local authorities.
Issued beginning in the mid-1990s and invalidated on March 31 of this year, nearly 400,000 white cards have since been turned over to local officials, according to immigration figures, in line with a government order that the documents be returned by May 31.
“He [the deputy minister] said those who obtain citizenship after returning their temporary identity documents are still not allowed to travel freely due to security reasons,” Pe Than said. “His answer also shows that there is instability and no rule of law yet in the [Arakan] State.”
“The government should listen to its citizens, and respect their right to movement,” he added. “We would help them travel safely if they need to travel outside of Arakan State [for better job opportunities].”
Khin Soe, director of the Arakan State Immigration Department, told The Irrawaddy last week that those individuals returning white cards would be issued green-colored documents valid for two years, during which time they would have the opportunity to apply for citizenship. An official with the Union-level Immigration and National Registration Department had previously told The Irrawaddy that the cards would be “blue-green” in color.
Myebon Township was selected for a pilot of the so-called citizenship scrutinizing process, which is based on Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law and requires applicants to prove ancestry in Burma. A successful screening sees the applicant granted one of three citizenship statuses: full, naturalized or associate.
There are an estimated one million Muslims who either had white cards or another form of identity document, according to Shwe Maung, a Rohingya lawmaker from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
“There are reports that those who lost their white cards were not able to return the documents and thus they are not being counted in the figure,” he told The Irrawaddy.
He said questions remain on the new policy, including whether it is in line with the 1982 Citizenship Law and related legislation.
The Rohingya community had hoped that they would be issued citizenship identity cards when they returned their temporary documents, according to Shwe Maung, but those hopes were not realized. Those handing over their white cards were instead given a receipt.
On Monday another Arakanese lawmaker, Ba Shein, also raised the issue of freedom of movement for Rohingya Muslims who are being held in the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Arakan State.
Ba Shein told The Irrawaddy that the deputy minister also did not answer his inquiry about which laws gave the government the authority to confine IDPs to the camps. The lawmaker also asked whether the deputy minister considered the IDPs to be suffering from human rights abuses.
“The deputy minister excused it [limitation of movement] by saying it is due to the impacts of communal conflicts following the Kyauk Ni Maw [rape case] in 2012,” he said, referring to an incident that sparked the unrest three years ago. “My question was to find out in what ways the government is working to improve their rights. But there was no answer.”
He urged the government to take seriously the “longstanding” issue of citizenship verification, which he said was rife with corrupt practices.
“It requires courage from the government to deal with it,” he said.
The ANP lawmakers’ questions in defense of human rights for the Rohingya are not typical. The party, which counts ethnic Arakanese Buddhists as its major base of support, has rarely taken such a public stand and its chairman Aye Maung has consistently spoken out against granting the Muslim minority political rights before their claims to citizenship had been assessed.
Mutual distrust between the communities makes perceived support for the Rohingya a politically risky position, with the state’s majority Arakanese largely considering the minority Muslims to be illegal interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh.
Shwe Maung told The Irrawaddy that he welcomed the substance of the lawmakers questions, but had doubts about their intent.
“I welcome those questions as they are the right issue to ask about, but the motives behind the questions is unknown; whether they want the freedom of travel for Rohingya Muslims or they want them [Rohingya] to move from the region forever,” he said.
Khin Oo Tha contributed to this report.