Even the international community has fallen for it
This past weekend, a delegation of Myanmar officials visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, where over a million Rohingya live after having fled wave after wave of attacks by the Myanmar military.
The visit comes as the question of repatriation for the Rohingya resurfaces, and the debate continues regarding what conditions will be conducive to their return to Myanmar.
While the delegation may want to present Myanmar as a pragmatic and even compassionate, the truth is that their visit is another superficial attempt to obscure the violence of the Myanmar military and the apathy and heartlessness of the Myanmar government.
As talk of repatriation continues, Myanmar maintains conditions for the Rohingya to return, including that the Rohingya must register for what is known as National Verification Cards (NVC).
The NVC is a scheme by the government which they’ve tried to sell to the international community as a stepping stone to grant citizenship to the disenfranchised Rohingya community.
In reality, it is one that will instead strip the Rohingya of their identity and autonomy indefinitely. Where the NVC is presented as a glimmer of hope for the oppressed, it is instead a glittering bait in a trap that would remove their rights forever.
The NVC is already in use in Myanmar and for years the authorities have been pressuring Rohingya to accept them, often through threats and extortion.
The cards have identified the Rohingya as “Bengali” and although authorities were recently reported saying ethnicity would not be included on the NVC, this misidentifying practice continues.
By prohibiting the Rohingya from self-identifying, Myanmar is denying them a fundamental human right and re-writing history to label the Rohingya as foreign invaders instead of indigenous to Myanmar soil.
A report titled NVC: A barrier to Rohingya repatriation was published on July 11, 2019, drafted by Burma Human Rights Network and edited by the International State Crime Initiative has clearly proved that NVC is a key instrument of Myanmar apartheid system.
This practice is part of Myanmar apartheid system against the Rohingya due to their ethnic and religious identity, rooted in the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law which effectively excludes the Rohingya from citizenship by insisting they provide documentation of ancestry in the country prior to the British colonial era that began in 1824.
This requirement would be difficult for any people in the world to provide, let alone people who’ve been forced repeatedly to relocate due to widespread destruction of their homes and conflict in one of the most impoverished states in Myanmar.
Where Burma insists that NVC can be used as a path to citizenship, the truth is that the NVC does not negate the 1982 Citizenship Law and this law is what the Mynamr authorities need to do away with it in order for a just and safe repatriation of the Rohingya to occur.
While debating the NVC and repatriation it is essential to look at the circumstances of the Rohingya still living in Myanmar today. Over 120,000 Rohingya in central Rakhine state have been trapped in temporary camps since 2012.
Approximately 300,000 Rohingya remain in Northern Rakhine State living under aid blockades, lack of access to NGOs, and extreme restrictions on travel. And still, as conflict continues in Rakhine state (even without any Rohingya involved in the fighting) the Rohingya continue to face casualties as a result.
The situation of the Rohingya living in Burma today should be a test of Myanmar’s sincerity in efforts to help the minority.
The international community cannot believe that the Rohingya set to be returned to Burma can be granted full rights and assurances of safety if the Rohingya still living in Burma today are denied these things.
Myanmar’s Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, Win Myat Aye said in 2018: “If they (Rohingya) get NVCs, they will get the freedom to travel, housing projects, vocational training, and easy access to education and health care.”
This has been repeatedly proven untrue as Rohingya who have accepted NVCs are consistently denied permission to travel outside their villages, are rejected from citizenship, and are unable to seek employment opportunities.
Rohingya fishermen who have been forced to take NVC cards through threats and extortion efforts of security forces are still only allowed to go fishing two days out of the week.
By every measure, the quality of life for the Rohingya has not improved as a result of the NVC, with many formally sacrificing their identity as Rohingya in order to obtain a useless piece of plastic.
The international community has too often fallen for Myanmar’s tricks. In June of this year, Thailand’s foreign minister referred to the NVC as a step towards recognizing the Rohingya’s identity during the ASEAN summit.
The special envoy of the UN’s secretary-general on Myanmar issued a statement in January of 2019 which was supportive of the NVC for potential returnees.
It must be understood that the NVC is not simply a flawed system that can be fixed but is in itself part of Myanmar discriminatory system which ranks citizenship by religion and ethnicity, with Muslims and particularly Rohingya at the bottom.
To correct this, the system cannot be tinkered with and adjusted, but discriminatory laws must be abolished. The visit this weekend by the Myanmar delegation to the Rohingya camps should easily be understood as a meaningless PR stunt.
The delegation can give the appearance that Myanmar is working to fix a problem while simultaneously denying that they have created it. They can lay conditions for return which they can claim will give the Rohingya a path to citizenship while in reality stripping the Rohingya of their identity, ethnicity, history, and a true path to citizenship and belonging in Myanmar.
The international community cannot allow this to happen and must act boldly against these efforts without compromise unless they are willing to repeat the same cycles of violence, displacement, and genocide the Rohingya have suffered through for generations.
Kyaw Win is the Executive Director, Burma Human Rights Network.