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Myanmar casts minorities to the margins as citizenship law denies legal identity

Hindu devotees take part in Durga Puja festivities in Yangon. Nationality in Myanmar is based on membership of one of 135 ‘national races’, excluding others from full citizenship. Photograph: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty

By Julia Wallace
November 5, 2016

Citizenship legislation in Myanmar excludes some communities and restricts the rights of others, even where families have lived in the country for generations

Aung Kyaw Min Tun has lived in Myanmar for all of his 24 years, his native tongue is Burmese, and his parents and grandparents were born here. But he is not officially a citizen of the country and has no idea if he ever will be.

The problem is that he is a Tamil Hindu, an ethnicity that does not fit neatly into the country’s complex citizenship law, in which nationality is based on membership of one of 135 “national races” that supposedly lived within the country’s boundaries before the British invaded in 1824. The law, created by Myanmar’s military dictatorship in 1982, excludes others from full citizenship, but allows them to apply for two lower tiers with fewer rights.

The law’s heavy emphasis on ethnicity has led rights groups to call it discriminatory. The legislation has also been enforced selectively, with multiple layers of bureaucracy and endemic corruption.

The result can be years of waiting for those who do not fit obviously into the list of national races, including ethnic Chinese, Indians, Nepalese, many Muslims, and people with a foreign parent or grandparent.

“The citizenship process has been a shambles, at least since the military took power in 1962,” said Ronan Lee, a political consultant and PhD candidate at Deakin University in Melbourne who has studied the issue.

Aung Kyaw Min Tun’s family exemplifies the chaos. His father holds a citizenship card that he obtained before the 1982 law, while his brother paid a bribe of about $300 (£245) for one in the early 2000s. His mother and older sister only have residency permits, and he and his younger sister have been unable to obtain any documents even though they are technically eligible to be second-class “associate citizens”.

He said two-thirds of his community in Yangon faced the same problems – mostly those too poor to pay large, informal fees. Without citizenship documents, he said, he cannot travel freely within the country, obtain a passport, or buy property. “If someone tried to kick us out, we’d have to go, because we have no documents. It’s scary,” he said. “I was born here and will die here, so I should have documents to show that.”

Most talk of citizenship is focused on the Rohingyas, a stateless Muslim minority of about 1 million people living in Rakhine state, on the border with Bangladesh.

They fall outside the list of national ethnicities and live under an apartheid-like system that restricts their ability to move around for employment or other reasons, and severely limits their access to healthcare and education. They have suffered from bouts of communal violence, and almost 120,000 remain in squalid camps after being driven from their homes in 2012.

The plight of the Rohingyas seems unlikely to improve without an overhaul of the citizenship law.

The Seagull Foundation, a human rights organisation, recently surveyed 100 religious or ethnic minorities in Mandalay and found that almost all had problems obtaining a national registration card. Many said they were told they had to change their ethnicity or religion to fit into a prescribed category to receive the document.

Respondents also reported paying bribes of up to 500,000 kyat (£315) and said their children were being excluded from programmes issuing national registration cards in schools. Several people, particularly Muslims, said they were forced to accept third-tier “naturalised citizen” status in order to get their documentation.

Myint Kyaing, permanent secretary at Myanmar’s ministry of immigration, said the government was trying to combat such corruption by conducting spot checks in local immigration offices and promptly investigating complaints. He declined to comment on broader problems with the citizenship law.

But for Harry Myo Lin, the head of the Seagull Foundation, fundamental reform is necessary, in addition to more stringent anti-corruption efforts. “Ethnicity and religion should not be on ID cards,” he said. “An immigration system should have citizens and non-citizens.”

Given the unrest in Rakhine and elsewhere, as well as a resurgence in Buddhist nationalism, it is not surprising Muslims have often borne the brunt of this corruption.

Lee said that even Muslims who qualified as citizens under the 1982 law had experienced problems asserting their rights. “Travel restrictions in Rakhine state seem to be enforced based on religion and skin tone rather than whether people have the correct documents,” he said.

Among the victims is Phwey Phwe New, 26, an ethnic Kaman woman who has been stuck in That Kay Pyin camp in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, since the 2012 violence. Kaman Muslims are on the list of national ethnicities yet suffer similar treatment as the Rohingyas. Before 2012, it had never occurred to her that she might need a citizenship card. She had taken her status for granted and travelled freely.

She set out to obtain documentation, but said it took two years. “When I went to the office, they asked for bribes,” she said. “I spent a lot of money.”

Despite receiving her identity card in 2015, she cannot leave the camp because her husband, also a Kaman, is still waiting for his card.

As for the Rohingyas, efforts to normalise their situation have stalled. This is not only due to animosity from nationalist Buddhists but also because of the Rohingyas’ mistrust of the government.

Muslim Rohingyas in the courtyard of a school sheltering displaced people in the village of Theik Kayk Pyim, on the outskirts of Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Photograph: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Many Burmese consider the Rohingyas interlopers from Bangladesh despite the fact that some families have been in Myanmar for generations.

A pilot citizenship verification programme launched in 2014 under the former military-backed government failed because the Rohingyas were forced to list their ethnicity as Bengali, implying they were immigrants from Bangladesh. This year, the newly elected government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, attempted to avoid the issue by allowing Rohingyas to register without listing any ethnicity or religion. But this option has also proved unpopular. 

Shom Shul Alom, a Rohingya man living in the Maw Thi Nyar displaced persons camp, said ethnicity was so important to the social and political fabric of Myanmar that he would refuse to accept any identity document that did not identify him as a Rohingya. “If you try to distribute identity cards but you do not put race or religion, it wouldn’t work. We will not accept it,” he said.

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