The Irrawaddy

Myanmar Asks Bangladesh to Stop Calling Rohingya Refugees ‘Nationals,’ ‘Forcibly Displaced’

Rohingya refugee woman poses after receiving an ID card from Bangladesh army in a camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva - RC1ED58C7AD0

YANGON — Myanmar claims that Bangladesh has agreed to stop labeling the IDs it has been issuing Rohingya refugees “Myanmar National’s Registration Card.”

The request came during a three-day visit to Myanmar by Bangladeshi Foreign Affairs Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali that included a day-trip to northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township, where military operations triggered by militant attacks on security posts in August 2017 drove some 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh seeking refuge.

The United Nations has labeled the military operations ethnic cleansing, and international rights groups have called on the UN to refer Myanmar military chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing to the International Criminal Court over widespread reports of arson, rape and murder by security forces.

On his visit, Abul Hassan held meetings in Naypyitaw and Rakhine State with Vice President U Myint Swe, Social Welfare Minister U Win Myat Aye, State Counselor’s Office Minister U Kyaw Tint Swe and with an interfaith group in Yangon.

On Saturday, Myanmar announced that it reached seven agreements with the foreign minister including a promise “to revise the language used on the cards issued by Bangladesh.”

On Monday, U Win Myat Aye told The Irrawaddy that Myanmar asked Abul Hassan to change the language on the ID cards Bangladesh was issuing the refugees that describe them as Myanmar nationals and to stop referring to them as “forcibly displaced.”

Neither the announcement nor the social welfare minister explained what Myanmar wants “Myanmar National’s Registration Card” replaced with.

But U Win Myat Aye said Myanmar objected to “forcibly displaced” because, he claimed, most of the refugees were not technically forced out by the military. He conceded that some were forced, but that most left later on as the gradual departure of neighbors made it untenable for them to continue to make a living in their communities.

“They just left very gradually and no government officials gave orders or forcibly drove them out. The real situation is not the way they describe it,” said U Win Myat Aye, claiming that the refugees object to the term as well.

He said some of the displaced people may be Myanmar nationals but most of them would need to go through a verification process.

An Aug. 11 press release from the Bangladesh Foreign Affairs Ministry, however, a day after Abul Hassan’s meeting with U Myint Swe, makes no mention of any agreement on nomenclature and actually uses the term “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals” twice.

Bangladesh started issuing the refugees ID cards in September, but most Rohingya refused to accept them because they did not specifically identify them as Rohingya, which Myanmar refuses to recognize as an ethnic group. The laminated paper cards, written in English, include the holder’s name, age, place of birth, nationality and parents’ names. At the time, Bangladeshi officials were quoted by international media claiming that the omission of ethnicity was in line with international practice.

Examples of the ID cards Bangladesh began issuing refugees in September. (Photo: Supplied)

In early October, Bangladesh started issuing new ID cards labeled “Rohingya People Registration” that included their place of birth and listed their nationality as Rohingya. It is unclear whether the first cards were revoked or replaced.

Both cards were issued by Bangladesh’s Immigration Department.

Separately, Bangladesh and the UN’s refugee agency have jointly started issuing the refugees over 12 years old yet another type of ID card that includes anti-fraud features including biometric data but no ethnic identity.

In addition to changing the wording of the Bangladeshi ID cards, Myanmar said, Abul Hassan agreed to set up a hotline between the two governments to discuss repatriation, expedite the repatriation process, hand out the agreed-to repatriation forms in the camps, and ensure that the forms were filled out voluntarily.

Saturday’s statement said Abul Hassan also vowed to have the remaining four of five promised refugee transit camps on Bangladesh’s side of the border built soon, step up joint anti-narcotics operations along the border, cooperate on a joint survey of the border between posts 34 and 35 and help Myanmar repatriate the refugees taking shelter there.

In its own Aug. 11 statement on the visit, the Bangladesh Foreign Affairs Ministry said Abul Hassan urged Myanmar to prepare villages and housing in northern Rakhine State for the refugees to return to and that he was told that 42 sites had been identified.

It said Bangladesh also asked Myanmar to help convince prospective returnees to accept Myanmar National Verification Cards (NVCs) and that Myanmar agreed to send teams to the refugee camps to explain their advantages. Most Rohingya refuse to accept the NVCs because they do not guarantee them the Myanmar citizenship they believe they are entitled to.