‘We Will Leave the Book Open’

By May Kha, Reform 23 September 2013

As Burma grapples with issues such as the return of refugees and the need to help families displaced by civil wars, The Irrawaddy reporter May Kha recently spoke with Khin Yi, the minister of immigration and population, about his role in the peace process. In this interview, he also discusses nationwide census efforts, the development of a permanent residency system and the need to improve Burmese ID cards, while also sharing his thoughts on ceasefires.

Question: What is your role in the peace process, as head of the Ministry of Immigration and Population (MIP)?

Answer: The new government has prioritized the peace process and formed the Union Peacemaking Central Committee, headed by the president. I am a member of this committee. I am also a member of the peace negotiation team from the President’s Office, headed by Minister Aung Min. I am deeply involved with issues related to the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Karen people.

Immigration works are affiliated with the peace process because we will have to deal with citizenship issues for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees who will be returning home after peace has prevailed in their areas.

Q: Please tell us the latest developments regarding a nationwide census planned by the MIP.

A: We will conduct a nationwide census in 2014. Currently we are implementing census-related awareness raising activities. There are about 60 million people and about 11 million households in Burma. We have 70 districts; 330 townships; 3,051 quarters; 13,620 village tracts and 64,346 villages in 14 divisions and states. We also have a total of 135 ethnic groups.

Q: Will Muslims living in Arakan State be included in the census?

A: Muslims in Arakan State will be included in the census. Except for diplomats and people working for foreign missions abroad, everyone living in Burma’s boundaries within the specific period of time will be listed. Whether people are Muslims or they belong to any particular ethnic group, they will be in the census.

Q: What policy have you developed to deal with Burmese refugees and illegal immigrants who are currently living in Thailand and Malaysia, both inside and outside refugee camps, with stateless status?

A: After ceasefire agreements with different armed groups have been consolidated, there will be programs for land mine clearance and the resettlement of members of those groups and their relatives. Such programs target those who left their country due to internal conflicts, including people in refugee camps. That means people in refugee camps who are in this category will be reconsidered Burmese citizens.

As for migrant workers, many of them left the country illegally. So, to make their journey convenient, the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the MIP have coordinated and issued temporary passports for them. In this process, the MIP is responsible for verifying if they are Burmese citizens. In Thailand, we opened 11 camps before to issue temporary passports for migrant workers from our country, but only four of them remain now since the process is about to finish.

Q: What arrangements have you made to accept returning refugees?

A: We are preparing. We will facilitate them in attaining citizenship. In this effort, we have to consider four sections of the law. The first is related to dual citizenship. Section 13 of the law does not allow any Burmese citizen to acquire citizenship of another country, so if someone wants to reapply for Burmese citizenship, he or she needs to give up the other. Section 16 also states that, “A citizen who leaves the state permanently, or who acquires the citizenship of or registers himself as a citizen of another country, or who takes out a passport or a similar certificate of another country, ceases to be a citizen.”

Furthermore, Section 22 bars people from reapplying for citizenship status, saying that a person whose citizenship has ceased or has been revoked shall have no right to apply again for citizenship or associate citizenship or naturalized citizenship. However, according to Section 8(A), the government can offer citizenship status, as it says, “The council of state may, in the interest of the state, confer on any person citizenship or associate citizenship or naturalized citizenship.” In any case, no one can acquire dual citizenship. So, there are things for those who want to be Burmese citizens again to decide.

Q: How will the permanent residence (PR) system allow Burmese people who are citizens of another country to come back and work in Burma in the long term?   

A: With the guidance of the president, a PR system was prepared for foreigners to stay in Burma permanently. This system will allow foreign assistance and intellectuals to come, which is needed for the development of the country, and also Burmese scholars to return home and contribute to their country. His goodwill intention for developing the PR system is to encourage national reconciliation—to reconstruct the country with those who had to leave for various reasons. It was not easy to develop it, though, as we had to link up with existing domestic laws. So far, the bylaw for the PR has been developed in consultation with and approval by the office of the attorney general. The government has also approved it.

Q: What provisions are included? For instance, how long can people stay, what will be their entitlements, and under what conditions can their PR status be revoked?  

A: I am worried about leaking information before it has been publicized officially. To be brief, the initial length of stay permitted by this PR system is five years, and that can be extended. However, the application for the extension will be decided by a PR board.

Q: More foreigners are coming to Burma these days. What kinds of visa can they apply for?

A: There are six types of visas: tourist, business, social, entry—for workshop, training, etc.—as well as diplomatic and multi-entry. Some student visas are included in the entry [category] and some are in the business category. We have yet to issue a separate visa for religious purposes—that is still included in the entry category. We are considering whether to issue a separate visa for that.

Q: What is a social visa?

A: An invitation from someone living inside the country is needed to apply for a social visa. It will allow for 28 days and cost US$36. The life of this visa is three months but it can be extended three months at a time for up to one year. With a social visa, you can either stay at home or somewhere else.

Q: People say that ID cards are easy to duplicate. Do you have any thoughts on how to tackle this matter?  

A: Since the current ID cards were made of paper, you can say they are easy to duplicate. About 70 percent of the country’s 60 million population are living in rural areas and do not have very much money, so the government came up with a plan of using paper so that everyone could afford it. We are now preparing to replace them with “smart cards,” which have devices to protect against duplication. We have received offers from a number of countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Germany, Korea and England to develop these cards. We are currently at a learning stage. We will definitely replace the existing cards with smart ones.

Q: Can you say that the government now provides the best protection for its border exits?

A: Burma neighbors five countries, and there are 16 official exit points along its borders. There may be many other unofficial ones, through which people can enter and exit. To set up a mechanism to systematically examine people going in and out of the country, the MIP submitted a proposal to the government. It is a system using machines to examine people with their fingerprints. We also have a plan to set up a communications system to get in touch in a timely way between border areas and the central headquarters. I served as the director-general of the police force before, and I can say that there is no absolutely perfect security system in any country in the world.

Q: Will a “comprehensive ceasefire” be reached in October?  

A: What the government has planned for October is a “nationwide ceasefire.” We have already had ceasefire agreements with 14 groups. Only two [of the major] ethnic [armed] groups, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), have not yet signed. We will meet with them again this month and talk about it.

It is true that some clashes have occurred after ceasefires. Of course, we need to find ways to consolidate such agreements. To do so, we need to develop the “dos and don’ts” for both sides. There must be a mechanism to monitor whether they are following those rules and practices.

Ceasefire is the most fundamental for peace. We cannot solve the problem unless we deal with it politically. To hold political talks, ceasefires need to be consolidated. We cannot reverse the process. So, to move forward, signing ceasefire agreements is needed. As Aung Min said, we will start with whoever wants to join us and leave the book open for others to come later and sign if they want. Otherwise, we cannot move forward.