Graft Claims in Arakan State Remain Unaddressed

By Khin Oo Tha 1 August 2013

Despite President Thein Sein’s frequent pledges to act against corruption among civil servants and military personnel along the Burma-Bangladesh border in Arakan State, there are few indications that the problem is being dealt with in a significant way.

Aung Gyi, former head of the Nasaka border guard force based in the Maungdaw region, is the only major dismissal to date that might be linked to the widespread graft allegations that have beset the region. And even the general’s firing was officially due to his handling of the riots that erupted last year in Arakan State, though accusations of bribe-taking had swirled around him and remain unaddressed.

The Nasaka, which was disbanded by Thein Sein last month, was formed from members of the army, police, and Customs and Immigration departments. Members of the army were widely regarded as the most powerful voice within Nasaka, which was notorious for extorting bribes from Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority that is denied citizenship by the government.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told the Myanmar Times that the abolition of the Nasaka was linked to plans in Washington to sanction the border guard force.

Though it appears the Nasaka will no longer be around to solicit bribes, the practice is not likely to disappear in Arakan State. Reports of corruption, such as the illegal issuance of identification cards to people who are not considered Burmese citizens in towns scattered across the state, are common.

Dr. Aye Maung, a representative from the Upper House of Burma’s Parliament and chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), said one possible element hindering action against graft was the involvement of army officials in the corruption.

“The main responsible persons, according to what I hear, are those who were posted in Rakhine [Arakan] State as head of the regional command and others who are officials from the army. That may be why there has been no action yet,” Aye Maung said.

Though corruption allegations are not a new phenomenon, in years past few dared to talk about or take action against those accused, when military intelligence officers under Gen Khin Nyunt and the army were at the height of their power.

Today, many of the former military regime’s senior leaders have taken up important positions in the present government under the ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Their hold over Parliament has led to accusations that the legislature is also acting as an obstacle to effective action against corruption in Arakan State.

A government report on the widespread violence in Arakan State that took place last year said that ahead of the 2010 election, temporary identification cards were issued to 500,000 Rohingyas so that the USDP could win votes from the ethnic minority. The 2012 violence would ultimately displaced about 140,000 people, most of whom are from the Rohingya minority and remain housed in temporary camps on the outskirts of several towns in Arakan State.

No serious action has yet been taken concerning the vote-buying allegations, despite the fact that the issue was brought to the attention of the Union Election Commission, the president and relevant governmental departments.

Immigration Minister Khin Yee told reporters at an interfaith conference in Rangoon on July 21 that white cards were issued to some people from Arakan State whose identity was unknown and who could not provide any evidence of citizenship. The white cards, which are distinct from the pink cards carried by Burmese citizens, allowed the holder to vote in the 2010 election, but required that they accept the government’s official designation of the ethnic minority as “Bengali,” not Rohingya.

The implication is that a white card holder is not a Burmese citizen and is instead an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. The view that the ethnic Rohingya are largely comprised of such illegal immigrants is widely held among Arakanese.

About 500,000 Rohingyas received the white cards, Khin Yee added. Rohingyas in Arakan State are estimated to total about 800,000 people.

In return for bribes from Rohingyas, the Immigration Department also issued identity cards for some Rohingyas stating that the cardholders were Kaman people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group whose Burmese citizenship is recognized by the government.

Though the population of Kaman people is only about 20,000 today, the number of people who hold Kaman ID cards is about 200,000, said one Kaman leader in an interview with Voice of America’s Burmese language service.

While acknowledging widespread public criticism of the Immigration Department’s bribe-taking, Khin Yee in an interview with Radio Free Asia asserted that the practice was not as rampant as some believed.

Aye Maung said that while ethnic Arakenese were not typically in positions of power that might allow for extortion, no one should be spared accountability for their actions.

“Rakhine people were not posted in the important positions. Those who really had the authority to act were officials from the army. Should Rakhine people be guilty of breaking the law, action must be taken against them, of course,” said Aye Maung.