The government of Myanmar has said that it would in January begin repatriating the Muslims who fled Rakhine State for Bangladesh following the latest outbreak of violence in late August. However, there is growing criticism that the repatriation process lacks transparency and that the government has not consulted with the local Arakanese community about the plans. Irrawaddy reporter Min Aung Khine recently spoke to U Aung Min, the head of Rakhine State’s Immigration and Population Department, about the repatriation process.
Would you explain the repatriation process for Muslim refugees in Bangladesh?
We will accept them back at two centers in Taungpyoletwe and Nga Khu Ya. The Immigration and Population Department, General Administration Department, police and Health Department will be involved in the process. As the government has said, the process will be in line with the 1993 agreement. Repatriation forms will be sent to Bangladesh through the Foreign Ministry. Then the refugees wishing to come back will fill in the forms. Then those forms will be sent back to us through the Foreign Ministry.
Then we’ll scrutinize whether or not they have really lived in our country. Then we will reply that we will accept this and that person. For example, suppose we receive a list of 10,000 people and we can confirm that 9,800 have lived in our country. Then we will send that list back to Bangladesh. Then we will accept the refugees according to that list. First we will issue them national verification cards (NVCs), and then electronically register their IDs.
When will the repatriation process start?
We’ve already prepared forms, NVCs and machines for electronic registration. We can start at once when the upper level authorities tell us to start.
How many people do you plan to accept per day? How long do you think the process will take?
Each center will accept 150 people. We immigration officials do not know where they will be resettled and how long it will take. It will be handled by the government leaders.
What progress are you making issuing NVCs?
We have been issuing NVCs since Oct. 12 in the Shwe Za village tract of Maungdaw Township. So far we’ve issued 1,583 NVCs there, and 64 in the Nga Yan Chaung village tract in Buthidaung Township. And we issued NVCs to 132 displaced persons in Kyaung Gyi Lan Ward and 221 others at a camp at the Danyawaddy [sports] grounds in Sittwe, and 136 at the Taung Baw camp in Myebon. So we’ve issued a total of 2,131 NVCs. It is fair to say that there is some progress in issuing NVCs. In addition, we issued NVCs to 63 [people] in Aung Mingalar Ward in Sittwe. They have started to understand the benefits of NVCs and become cooperative.
What difficulties has the department faced issuing NVCs?
Most of them want to apply for NVCs. But there are people who disrupt it. That’s why the process has been hindered. The process is in line with the wishes of people in Rakhine State, recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission [on Rakhine State], and the 1982 Citizenship Law of Myanmar.
Why do they disrupt the NVC process?
Some think that they are not qualified…for citizenship. This is then coupled with disruption by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). They disrupt because they won’t be able to blend in if others are holding NVCs. If all the people on this side and the repatriated refugees hold NVCs, immigration officials, the Myanmar police force and border police can easily identify illegal immigrants. So ARSA spreads propaganda and disrupts the NVC process. They also threaten to brutally kill those who accept NVCs. Last month, a village administrator was killed brutally in Nyaung Bin Gyi village. He was both shot and knifed. This shows that there is disruption of the NVC process.
Why aren’t Muslims in Sittwe and Pauktaw willing to apply for NVCs?
Those who believe that they are not eligible for citizenship are preventing the others who are likely to be eligible. Those who don’t have complete documents think that they will stand out when those with complete documents get NVCs. And they believe that this will not be good for them. So they are causing disturbances. We have found that those who have applied for NVCs have come to us secretly. They want to apply for NVCs but are afraid of those who are causing disturbances.
You said they don’t dare to apply for NVCs because of threats. Can’t security be provided for them?
They are worried that they will be hated by those without complete documents if they apply for an NVC. So they don’t apply openly. We are increasing security, but they are afraid.
How many village administrators have been killed over the NVC process?
According to our records, 19 administrators have been killed [from October 2016 to Aug. 24, 2017].
Some Muslims said their grandparents and parents have pink cards and therefore they don’t need to apply for NVCs. Are they right?
This is wrong. If their grandparents and parents have pink cards, they don’t have to hold NVCs. If both parents hold pink cards, their children need not hold NVCs, they can apply for citizenship directly. But during the citizenship verification process, for example if they want to go fishing and reach international waters, they have to show their identity cards. In that case, they need to hold an NVC to show who they are. Holding an NVC will have no impact on the citizenship verification process if both of their parents are pink-card holders. They have misunderstood this.
What is your response to criticism that citizenship verification is a little bit complicated in practice?
That is said by those who don’t understand Myanmar’s Citizenship Law. There are two types of citizens — those who were born as citizen and those who get citizenship according to the law. Those who were born to parents who were both citizens are citizens from birth. They may not hold a citizenship ID card, but they are still citizens. Those who are eligible for citizenship under the 1982 law or the 1948 law may or may not have applied for their citizenship ID cards, but they are citizens. And their children are eligible for citizenship. We give the children citizenship ID cards because their parents are eligible for citizenship whether or not they hold ID cards. If parents are not eligible, their children will not get citizenship ID cards.