Rohingya Reject New Citizenship Verification Cards

By Su Myat Mon 10 June 2016

RANGOON — A citizenship verification exercise aimed at stateless Muslims in Arakan State, which resumed last month, has been temporarily suspended in Ponnagyun Township, where residents of a small Rohingya village have refused to cooperate.

The Rohingya Muslim residents of Tarle village have refused to accept National Verification Certificates (NVCs) being handed out because the bearer’s ethnicity and religion is not stated on the cards, according to San Hla, commanding officer of a police station in Thaetap village. The process has been suspended for a week in the township.

NVCs are being handed out automatically to those who will be scrutinized for eligibility for citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law at a later stage in the process.

San Hla said the Muslim villagers had refused the NVCs even after officials explained their immediate advantages, which reportedly includes greater freedom of travel.

The Irrawaddy spoke with Maung Ne, the Rohingya headman of Tarle village, who confirmed the refusal: They told officials that they “wouldn’t agree [to accept the new cards] unless you first put our race and religion [Rohingya Muslim] on the cards.” The officials responded that “there are no Rohingya in Arakan State” and soon left the village.

“We are Rohingya, but this is not mentioned on the cards,” Maung Ne said.

The government is currently implementing citizenship verification only in Kyaukphyu, Myebon and Ponnagyun townships of Arakan State. In Kyaukphyu and Myebon, those targeted reside in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, where they were relocated from elsewhere in Arakan State after anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2013.

In Kyaukphyu and Myebon townships, the process is proceeding as planned, without any reported problems.

Aung Kyi, a Kyaukphyu Township Immigration officer, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that 1,192 people have been registered so far in the township, with NVCs handed to 140. On Friday morning, the number of NVCs disbursed had reached 484, according to Thawta Thwin, assistant director of the township Immigration office.

Phyu Chay, a Muslim resident of an IDP camp in Kyaukphyu, said on Thursday that around 75 percent of camp residents had been enrolled in the process. Phyu Chay reported that Arakan State Director of Immigration and National Registration Win Lwin had told camp residents that they could travel freely with the cards in hand.

“I am very happy about the NVCs. We believe that the National League for Democracy government will help us to become citizens under the 1982 Citizenship Law,” Phyu Chay told The Irrawaddy.

Aung Lwin who lives in a displaced persons’ camp in Myebon, said that NVCs had been issued to 126 people there on Wednesday.

The citizenship verification program is part of the Rakhine State Action Plan, unveiled under the former government in 2014 in response to the violence of 2012 and 2013. As originally conceived, the scheme only permitted the state’s Rohingya population to apply for citizenship on the condition that they self-identify as “Bengali.” The status of this provision has yet to be clarified by the new government installed in April.

A pilot citizenship verification program was carried out in displaced persons’ camps in Myebon Township in 2014. Out of the 1,094 Muslims applicants, 209 were declared eligible for citizenship in September 2014—although most were reportedly Kaman, a recognized Muslim minority group, and 169 qualified only for “naturalized” citizenship, which contains fewer rights than “full” citizenship, and can be revoked.

After an outcry from Arakanese Buddhist residents in Myebon and the state capital Sittwe, the program was swiftly suspended. It resumed only last month.

The 1982 Myanmar Citizenship Law, enacted under the military-socialist regime of Ne Win, narrowed eligibility for citizenship along ethnic lines. Those not included within 135 recognized ethnic groups must demonstrate that all four grandparents made Burma their home, and that both themselves and their parents were born in Burma. However, since the vast majority of people in Burma went without documents prior to rules requiring registration introduced in 1951, this remains very difficult for most to prove.