Citizenship Under Threat in Myanmar: A Shared Experience

Natalie Brinham - Independent consultant and Myanmar specialist
/ 6 mins read

“Why!? Our parents were citizens, but we didn’t get any citizenship cards! We are nationals, but we have to get permission like foreigners to go from one city to another city. To travel, we would have to go to the immigration office and we would be treated like foreigners.”

“I tried to get a citizenship card, but they would not give me one. They tried to give me one ID. This one was not a citizenship card – what is this!? They wrote me down as Bengali and gave me a card.”

(excerpt from interviews conducted in Kuala Lumpur in April 2018)

The denial of citizenship suffered by Rohingya communities in Myanmar has become all too familiar. But these words above are not the words of Rohingya.

They are the words of two ethnic Kaman describing the barriers they faced obtaining evidence of their citizenship - problems which began long before they were displaced by the state-sponsored violence of 2012 in Rakhine State, Myanmar.

Unlike Rohingya, Kaman are one of the 135 officially recognised ethnic nationalities, and are thus entitled to full citizenship in Myanmar. Yet the difficulties they describe in obtaining the documentation that would enable them to access their rights in Myanmar are remarkably similar. As with Rohingya, they believe the non-issuance of ID documents was deliberately targeted at their community by the central government, and that the imposition of the term “Bengali” is an attempt to reduce Kaman and other Muslim populations in Rakhine State. Their lack of documents as they grew older resulted in restrictions on their movement within the country and difficulties in accessing health and education facilities. It also limited their livelihood opportunities. The correlation between their lack of citizenship documents and the discrimination at the community level deepened over time, further undermining their citizenship claims.

The 1982 Citizenship Law in Myanmar discriminates on the grounds of race. It is also implemented in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner. Application processes for citizenship documents are characterised by decision-making processes that are arbitrary and corrupt. A forthcoming report from the Institute for Statelessness and Inclusion and Norwegian Refugee Council shows that these factors, combined with access barriers and burdensome evidentiary requirements in applications for citizenship documents, leave many people across the country without the right documents, unable to access their rights and at risk of statelessness. As the Burma Human Rights Network has documented, Muslims across Myanmar and in diaspora similarly face discrimination, extortion and harassment in securing documents that recognise their Myanmar citizenship for the purposes of accessing rights within the country, travelling overseas and obtaining migrant labour permits to work in neighbouring countries. Individuals who do not fit into the rigid ethnic criteria that is prescribed by the citizenship rules also face hurdles – including people of mixed ethnic or religious parentage or those whose parents/grandparents converted to another religion.

Weaponizing paperwork” in ways that undermine citizenship and repress dissent is a state tactic well-known to many members of the political and ethnic opposition movements in Myanmar. The rolling out of new colour-coded citizenship cards in 1989, came in the aftermath of violent crackdowns on nation-wide political protests. Those who fled the country or joined the opposition groups in the border areas, were not issued with the new cards and their names could be struck from household registers – a method of denationalisation. In 1997, the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar reported the confiscation of identity cards was used by authorities to “harass recognised citizens” – in particular the political opposition. Ethnic minorities, he noted, were unable to travel to the offices in government-controlled areas and government officials were “unwilling” to provide documents to minorities. This missing paperwork impacts minorities today as they try to secure their legal status in the country. Until recently, a lack of Identity documents effectively prevented people from travelling outside their village wards, due to restrictive policies relating to the mandatory registration of overnight guests in every household. Throughout the period of military rule, which was characterised by armed resistance in border areas, every young ethnic minority man who spent prolonged periods away from home in the border areas, knew the fear of household registration checks if he tried to return to his home in a government-controlled area.

Although the rules relating to guest registration were relaxed in 2016, citizenship documents remain key to freedom of movement and access to rights within the country. In 2018, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners was still documenting the use of immigration rules “as tools to clamp down on people for their involvement in political activities”. Today, Internally Displaced Persons, those from conflict areas and returning refugees remain amongst those who could, in future, be most affected by a lack of adequate documentation.

Meanwhile, in Rakhine State, identity cards have quite literally been weaponised. Government attempts to issue National Verification Cards and enforce registration and verification procedures on populations in Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017 met collective resistance resulting in further human rights abuses as Myanmar’s armed forces attempted to exert control. The military’s enforcement of this process ran in parallel with the military operations in northern Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017, during which at least 10,000 Rohingya were killed, 40% of Rohingya villages were destroyed and approximately 735,000 fled into neighbouring Bangladesh.  

It is not only the citizenship of Rohingya that is under threat in Myanmar. Though not all of Myanmar’s multi-ethnic population agree that Rohingya should be recognised as a national ethnic group under the law, there are shared experiences. Many people in the country can relate to the use of citizenship documents and registration processes as tools of government and military repression. As Myanmar’s people increasingly struggle to squeeze themselves into the uncomfortable ethnic identity boxes constructed for them by the citizenship rules, many more questions and objections are emerging from different directions. For a country to effectively transition from 50 years of military rule and move towards equality and inclusion, perhaps it is not just the Citizenship Law enacted under military rule that needs tweaking, but the institution of citizenship itself that is ripe for revision.

In 2017, with the support of Open Society Foundations, the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) and the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) set out to examine the relationship between statelessness and forced migration in Europe, to build links with refugees affected by statelessness, and to find out what key stakeholders involved in the refugee response in Europe were doing to address the issue. The aim of the #StatelessJourneys project is to generate an evidence base and tools for advocacy, capacity-building, awareness-raising and community engagement, to protect the rights of stateless refugees and prevent new cases of statelessness arising in the migration context in Europe.

As part of this project, ISI and ENS have developed comprehensive Country Position Papers (CPPs) providing information on the profiles of stateless individuals and persons who may be at risk of statelessness due to nationality or civil documentation problems. You can download the Myanmar CPP here.

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