Myanmar Junta’s Closure of Passport Offices Disrupts People’s Lives

By NORA 3 February 2023

Su Su is an atheist but planning to travel to Bodh Gaya, a holy sacred site for Buddhists in the Indian state of Bihar. She said her motive behind this pilgrimage has nothing to do with religion.

“This was the only way for me. It cost me a fortune but I have no other alternatives to get a passport now,” said the 31-year-old Yangon resident.

This is just one example of how Myanmar people are struggling to get passports these days, after the regime suddenly closed its passport offices in January, unofficially claiming to be updating its online system. It has also been silent on when the process would be resumed, leaving people like Su Su, who wanted to leave the country, in desperation.

She said she planned to work in Japan to earn more money as she—like many other young people in Myanmar today—no longer wants to live “under this situation anymore”, referring to the country’s deteriorating social, political and economic situation since the coup.

“The business is not going well. Every day, I wake up with stress and depression,” said the owner of an automobile accessories shop, because the country’s business prospects, already dimmed by COVID-19, were made even worse when the military staged a coup in 2021.

So, she decided to work in Japan. To do so, she needs a passport. She decided to buy a pilgrimage package to Bodh Gaya—one of the few options the regime has left open for the travel document applications despite the office’s closure.

Since the 2021 military coup, an unprecedented number of people have been fleeing Myanmar due to political uncertainty, economic decline and educational needs.

Deeply depressed by the coup, persecution and bleak economic outlook, people from all walks of life seek opportunities in search of freedom, better jobs and education abroad.

Seeking refuge from oppression, many flee to Australia, Canada, the US and many other countries.  Tens of thousands of people are trying to work under the MOU system in Thailand, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.

The sudden closure of passport offices has had a devastating effect on them. Appointment bookings for passports have been halted since Dec. 12 and the reopening date of the passport office is still unknown.

Despite the closure, the passport office in Yangon is making an exception and issuing passports for Bodh Gaya pilgrimages and the process takes nearly a month, a source from the passport office said.

The pilgrimage package, which costs from US$800 to $1,250, is the only option for Su Su, who needs to get the passport urgently for her future career.

Another way to obtain a passport is to request permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Naypyitaw but it only gives permission for certain cases.

U Saw Tun submitted a request to the ministry to issue passports for him and his family, explaining that his 55-year-old wife needs treatment abroad for her breast cancer.

He said that even though he could still manage to buy chemotherapy medicines for his wife, he was not sure about the future.

“If they are not available here, I need to try another way. I don’t have a passport in my hand. So, I gave it a try to apply for it,” he said.

He sent the application letter with attached medical recommendation documents, which proved the urgent need for medical attention abroad for his wife, to the Ministry of Home Affairs in Naypyitaw. He received a call 10 days later and his request was finally approved by the Ministry.

For people who are not able to follow the footsteps of Su Su and U Saw Tun, all they can do is wait in distress for the reopening of the passport office.

Mya Thar, who never thought of leaving Myanmar before the military coup, is one of them. He is a final-year university student who rejected junta education and has been preparing to study in Thailand.

“One of my friends, who also rejected the junta’s education system, is now studying in Thailand. So, I am thinking about joining him there. So, I am waiting to apply for a passport and I hope it won’t take ages to reopen,” he said.

He also said he paid 100,000 kyats to a broker to get a QR code to confirm an appointment for an application. But unfortunately, the passport office closed down on the day of his appointment.

A passport service agent from Yangon said the passport office accepted 1,250 appointments daily until its closure.

“The last date of passport appointments I booked for my clients was Feb. 27, 2023,” she said. “There is also speculation that the passport office will open in February but no one knows exactly.”

Meanwhile, according to the agents in Yangon, more than 50,000 appointments were reportedly in limbo and it is not clear how they would be handled when the offices reopen.

Names in the story have been changed for safety reasons.