Muslims in western Myanmar’s multiethnic Rakhine state are still being squeezed by tightened restrictions on their movements, suggesting that the government has yet to make tangible progress on loosening controls on the religious minority in the Buddhist-majority nation.
Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, Christians, and Rohingya and Kaman Muslims have lived together in the multiethnic state for generations, but authorities subject the Rohingya, who were stripped of their Myanmar citizenship in 1982 and are seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, to routine discrimination and deny them access to basic services.
Many Rohingya say that one of the greatest obstacles to their ability to make a living and get health care are draconian restrictions on their movements. Those who live in townships or in displacement camps are usually confined to local areas and must receive permission from authorities to travel.
Ei Myat Thu, a Rohingya resident of Thandwe township in south Rakhine state, found herself in such a situation this year when local authorities stopped issuing her permits for her periodic trips to Yangon where she was enrolled in distance-education studies.
After high school, Ei Myat Thu was accepted to study law at Taungup Degree College in the town of Taungup, north of Thandwe township. But she chose instead to pursue legal studies through a distance education program at Dagon University in Yangon, because she feared that sectarian tension and violence between Buddhists and Muslims might flare up again in the costal township.
A mob of mostly Buddhist ethnic Rakhine people beat and killed Muslims traveling on a bus near Taungup township in June 2012, after blaming some of them for the gang rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in another part of Rakhine state. They then torched the bus.
The attack reflected growing sectarian and ethnic tensions in the state that culminated in communal violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims that year in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, which left more than 200 people dead and displaced tens of thousands of mostly Rohingya who were sent to live in displacement camps.
Five years after the Sittwe violence, deadly attacks on police outposts by a Muslim militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in northern Rakhine state in August 2017 sparked a military crackdown on Rohingya communities. The campaign, which included indiscriminate killings, sexual assaults, and village burnings, drove more than 720,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh.
Ei Myat Thu, who studied law for two years before switching her major to Myanmar literature, routinely submitted applications for travel permits to Thandwe township authorities to go to Yangon to take exams. She had no problem getting the permits until this year.
“When I applied for my travel document, the officials said it would take a week and I waited, but I didn’t get it when I later went to the immigration office a week later,” Ei Myat Thu said.
Employees there told her that she had to call the Rakhine state government office for more information, but they refused to make the call on her behalf.
A month had passed, and she still hadn’t heard anything more about the status of her application for the travel permit. Anxious about not receiving the permit in time to go to Yangon to sit for an exam, Ei Myat Thu wrote about her dilemma on her Facebook page.
After a reporter from RFA’s Myanmar Service read her account and contacted Thandwe immigration department officials, she received the travel permit at the last minute in October and was able to make it to Yangon in time to take the exam.
Extensive paperwork required
Other Muslims in Thandwe who have applied for National Registration Cards (NRCs), which are issued to those who had been considered full citizens under Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law, reported difficulties when trying to obtain travel permits to get necessary health care in other locations.
In some cases, people have died before the permits were issued, they said.
Thandwe resident Mu Mu Naing said she applied for a travel permit at the local immigration department so she could get treatment for an eye problem in Yangon. She had to submit recommendations from her ward official and police station along with a list of her family members and a letter from her doctor stating that she had no mental health problems.
“We [Rohingya Muslims] need recommendations from two NRC holders, from our ward head, and from the local police station,” she said.
Immigration officials asked Mu Mu Naing for the address where she would be staying in Yangon and for copies of the NRC cards of all her relatives who live at the Yangon address.
“They had to be NRC holders, and they had to go to their township immigration office and sign a form saying that they were aware of my visit and accepted me,” she said.
All the information and copies of documents she submitted were sent to Special Branch officials — investigators under the Ministry of Home Affairs — who interviewed her after they checked them, she said.
Mu Mu Naing finally received a 30-day travel permit two months after she submitted all the paperwork.
When she went to Yangon General Hospital, she told her doctors that she would be in danger if she stayed in the commercial city for more than a month.
At the end of the four-week period, the doctors gave her some prescription medication and let her return home.
Other Rohingya Muslims in Thandwe complain of social and financial losses due to lengthy waiting times for travel permits.
Ohn Lwin, a former employee at the Department of Commerce and Agriculture office in Thandwe, said that when he was transferred to the Cooperative Department, state government officials did not grant him permission to travel to serve in another town.
“I was waiting for seven years for permission, but hadn’t heard anything,” he said. “After that, I sent a petition letter to President [Win Myint] to allow me to travel, and I finally got it. But the seven years that I had waited were wasted.”
Those who do receive travel permits say they are restricted to using specified roadways.
Following the communal violence in 2012, Muslims with travel permits have had to use the Ann-Yangon highway instead of Taungup-Yangon highway for safety reasons.
“There are four checkpoints along the highway, and people with travel permits who don’t have NRCs have to pay 5,000-10,000 kyats (U.S. $3.13-$6.26) at each checkpoint,” said a Muslim woman living in Thandwe township who declined to give her name.
Unlike Rohingya Muslims, Kaman Muslims are included among the 135 distinct ethnic groups officially recognized by the government. Yet they also face discrimination.
‘We really need an NRC’
Khin Ohn Shwe, the Kaman Muslim head of Kyaungtike village in Thandwe township, said that whenever Kamans travel with infants, officials take photos of them with the children and ask them to provide a letter from the township administrator verifying that the babies are children of the person bearing the travel permit.
“Even though we take along our list of family members showing the names of all the relatives, including those of the children, we are still discriminated against,” she said.
Sandar Tun, a Rohingya student from Thandwe township, said she has lost several opportunities because she does not have an NRC.
“We don’t mind whatever they call us, but we want National Registration Cards,” she said. “Even if we are identified as Bengalis or Kamans, it will not pose a problem for us. But we really need an NRC.”
“Because we don’t have the cards, we have lost out on many opportunities,” she said.
Most Kamans in Thandwe have NRCs because local immigration officials helped them register for the cards in 2017, though some who have one parent who is a Rohingya from northern Rakhine state cannot obtain a card.
Because Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya, disparagingly referred to as Bengalis, as one of its official “national races,” many have been denied NRCs unless they can prove that both of their parents were full citizens and possessed NRCs.
Ko Lay Aung, an immigration department official in Thandwe township, said that his office usually issues travel documents in one day for non-NRC holders who need to leave the area for urgent health care.
But it takes 10 days to issue travel permits for students who must leave the area to meet with professors and take exams.
It was only after RFA interviewed Ko Lay Aung that Ei Myat Thu received her travel permit to go to Yangon.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.