The government of Myanmar must restore full citizenship rights to Rohingya Muslims living in Myanmar and in refugee camps in Bangladesh, and abandon the issuing of National Verification Cards (NVCs) that describe them as “foreigners,” a rights group said on Tuesday at a press conference in Thailand.
The cards stigmatize the Muslim ethnic group, who are widely viewed in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh though many have lived in Myanmar for generations, and authorities routinely force Rohingya to accept their use, threatening loss of access to livelihood if they refuse, the U.S. and Swiss-registered group Fortify Rights said.
“In our view, there are no versions of pragmatism that can justify coercing Rohingya to accept NVC,” Fortify Rights executive director Matthew Smith said in remarks given at Bangkok’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club on the release of the report “Tools of Genocide: National Verification Cards and the Denial of Citizenship of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.”
Rohingya villagers have also been threatened at gunpoint to accept the cards, with others beaten or tortured for refusing to comply, the rights group said in its report, adding that even Rohingya holding NVCs are “systematically denied freedom of movement” in Myanmar.
“The government continues to confine nearly 500,000 Rohingya to isolated, poor villages and to 24 squalid internment camps located in five townships in [western Myanmar’s] Rakhine state,” the rights group said. Meanwhile, Rohingya working for aid groups in Myanmar have been threatened with loss of their jobs if they refuse to register for the cards.
Following enactment of a revised citizenship law in 1982, the government of Myanmar has refused to recognize the Rohingya as a legitimate national ethnic minority, and has denied the group citizenship, access to health care and other rights, despite the Rohingya community’s longtime presence in the country’s western region.
‘Not for us’
Speaking in Bangkok on Tuesday, Ambia Parveen of the European Rohingya Council called for the ethnic group’s citizenship to be restored.
“This notification card is not for us. We have enough evidence that we are an ethnic group of Myanmar, and we had full citizenship rights before,” she said.
“If we accept the national verification card, it will be like killing two birds with one stone – we will be agreeing that we are foreigners, and we will also have to write in the card ourselves that we are foreigners or ‘Bengalis.’”
Also speaking in Bangkok, Myanmar-based interfaith religious leader and activist Khin Maung Myint said that the intention of Myanmar authorities “is now very clear.”
“They want to get rid of these people in Rakhine state, and they don’t want to take them back as citizens of this country,” he said.
In August 2017, more than 740,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh amid brutal clearance operations by Myanmar’s military in response to Muslim militant attacks on border police posts.
More than 1 million Rohingya live there in squalid camps, mostly in the district of Cox’s Bazar.
Refugees have given U.N. investigators horrific accounts of rape, murder, and the burning of their homes as they escaped from Rakhine, though Myanmar military officials have rejected claims of atrocities, saying their troops were conducting legitimate counter-offensives against militant attacks.
Rohingya in the camps have called on Myanmar’s government to grant them full citizenship rights and to ensure their safety in the Buddhist-majority country before they decide to return under a repatriation agreement that Myanmar and Bangladesh signed in November 2017.
To bring the Rohingya back, the government of Myanmar must first prove its sincerity by restoring rights to an estimated 150,000 Rohingya displaced by an earlier round of violence in 2012 and now living in camps in Rakhine, Khin Maung Myint said.
“You have to give rights back to these people and send them back to their places of origin,” he said.
“Then the 800,000 to 1 million people who are living in Bangladesh will willingly come back to the country. You won’t have to beg them,” he said.
Issues must be addressed
Issues of national and ethnic identity must be fully addressed as Myanmar approaches national elections next year, Fortify Rights said in its report.
“The Government of Myanmar should immediately abolish the NVC process and restore equal access to full citizenship rights for Rohingya through a speedy administrative process developed in meaningful consultation with the Rohingya community in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and the diaspora.”
Unless this is done, U.N. refugee officials and the government of Bangladesh should suspend plans to send Rohingya refugees now sheltering in Bangladesh home to Myanmar, the rights group said.
Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews, contributed to this report.