Rohingya: They tried to erase us

Zaw Win’s grandparents had the same identity card as everyone else in Myanmar, but a generation later his parents were given a separate ID for minority Rohingyas. Today, Zaw Win is classed as an illegal immigrant in the land of his birth.

For more than three decades, Myanmar’s ruling powers have weaponised the country’s identity card system in a wider campaign of persecution, exclusion and surveillance targeting the Muslim ethnic community, human rights groups say.

Zaw Win, 37, a rights activist who fled Myanmar in 2014 in fear for his safety, traces the withdrawal of his citizenship back through his family members’ diminishing identity status.

“My grandparents had full citizenship – they had the same type of ID card that Daw Suu Kyi had,” Zaw Win said, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi, the deposed political leader who was jailed after a military coup early last year.

“My parents had a green card that only the Rohingya had, and I got a piece of paper that categorised me as Muslim and my race as Bengali, an illegal immigrant. So over the years, they stripped us of our citizenship and tried to erase us,” he said.

When Zaw Win left Myanmar eight years ago, he had a temporary registration card issued to Rohingyas, but a year later that form of ID was also cancelled by the government.

From then on, Rohingyas were ordered to get National Verification Cards (NVCs) that identified them as non-citizens. Around the same time, officials also began collecting their biometric data such as fingerprints.

Over the next two years, human rights groups reported coercion and force by government officials and security forces issuing NVCs, alongside increasing bouts of violence including rape and mass killings that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar in August 2017 and seek refuge in Bangladesh.

The enforced ID system played a crucial role in the persecution of the Rohingya, said Kyaw Win, director of the London-based Burma Human Rights Network.

“The NVC, while promoted as a stepping stone to citizenship, forced Rohingya into a lower status that denied their ethnicity, excluded them from society, denied them rights and erased their history,” he said.

“It was designed to keep Rohingya in a state of non-citizenship.”

More than one billion people globally have no way of proving their identity, according to the World Bank.

At the same time, in the push towards a UN goal of a “legal identity for all” by 2030, and for digital ID systems aimed at better governance, governments are excluding marginalised groups and ethnic minorities from citizenship registrars, a UN expert has warned.

In Myanmar, authorities have repeatedly confiscated and cancelled ID documents and other evidence of citizenship of Rohingya since the 1970s, while also maintaining records for surveillance purposes, rights groups say.

The Citizenship Law of 1982, which requires individuals to prove that their ancestors lived in Myanmar before 1823, does not recognise Rohingya as one of the Buddhist-majority nation’s ethnic groups or list their language as a national language.

Under it, Rohingyas’ movements and access to livelihoods, education and healthcare were curtailed, and they needed permits to cross state and township boundaries, and for overnight stays.

While Myanmar authorities have said the NVC was a step towards citizenship under the 1982 law, the back of the card states that the holder needs to apply for citizenship.

Ahead of the military-led attacks in 2016 and 2017, there was an uptick in efforts to force Rohingya to get NVCs, and the brutal crackdown that began on Aug 25, 2017, was “a response to Rohingya villagers collectively refusing to accept NVCs”, Fortify Rights, an advocacy group, said in a report this year.

Five years since the 2017 crackdown, more than one million Rohingya live in squalid camps in southern Bangladesh, with little prospect of returning to Myanmar.

At the camps, residents generally have an ID card issued by the World Food Programme for their rations, and a smart card from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) that contains their biometrics including fingerprint, iris scan and a photograph.

After reports that aid agencies were sharing the database with Bangladesh authorities who passed the data to the Myanmar government, the Rohingya protested the data collection.

“The smart card is very important for us – it’s our ID card. We cannot move without it, cannot work, cannot get healthcare,” said Showkutara, 21, who fled Rakhine in 2017 and lives in Cox’s Bazar.

“We were very sad and also scared that our data was shared with the Myanmar government because we don’t know how they will use it,” said Showkutara.

In collecting Rohingyas’ data, the UNHCR did not conduct a full data impact assessment, and in some cases failed to obtain their informed consent to share their data with Myanmar, Human Rights Watch said last year.

In response, UNHCR said that “specific measures were taken to mitigate potential risks” in sharing data, and that refugees were “expressly asked whether they gave their consent to have their data shared” with the two governments. — Reuters

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