A court in Myanmar’s Yangon region began hearing testimony Thursday in a case against roughly 70 Rohingya Muslims arrested a week ago for attempting to flee the country illegally for Malaysia, while the United Nations human rights body issued a report documenting long-standing persecution against the ethnic minority.
The members of the group, which includes children, are being charged with violating Myanmar’s nationality laws because Rohingya, who are not one of Myanmar’s official ethnic groups, are barred from traveling without permission and because they did not have identification cards, said their attorney Thazin Myat Myat Win.
Myanmar’s constitution requires residents to carry a national identification card whenever they travel.
Hlegu township immigration official Than Saung testified about the matter during the hearing at the township courthouse, Thazin Myat Myat Win said.
“The law dictates that they cannot travel without travel documents,” he said. “Some of the detained Rohingya have the documents, but others don’t since they were not aware of the requirement, and in any case they had left Rakhine state to find better lives elsewhere.”
“The underage children have been charged under the Child Rights Law, and they are required to appear in court too,” he added.
The Rohingya are from Kyaukphyu, Sittwe, Minbya, and Buthidaung townships in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state. About 50 were picked up on Feb. 20 in a wooded area in Yangon’s Hlegu township, and another 14 who had fled were arrested the following day.
On Wednesday, a different set of 15 Rohingya who have been charged with violating nationality statutes went on trial in Minhla township in central Myanmar’s Magway region.
Saw Naing, a Yangon region immigration official, told RFA that he knows of no other cases in which nationality laws have been used to charge any members of Myanmar’s official ethnic groups, and that the Rohingya are required to adhere to the statutes.
Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law recognizes three categories of citizens, namely citizens, associate citizens, and naturalized citizens. It also legally recognizes 135 ethnic groups, but not the Rohingya.
“There have been no such charges against other ethnic groups,” Saw Naing said.
“The situation in Rakhine state is different from other parts of country,” he said. “There could be illegal immigrants who have entered the state as well as those who have lived there for many generations, so in order to distinguish themselves, they need to carry their ID cards whenever they travel.”
Most people from Rakhine state do not want to carry National Verification Cards, he added.
The cards serve as a precursor to applying for citizenship for those who qualify, but are highly unpopular with Rohingya, who say the cards identify them as “Bengali,” a term they reject because it implies they are immigrants from Bangladesh.
“As far as we can see, these people left voluntarily,” Saw Naing said of the group of Rohingya now on trial. “They may have had hardships living in Rakhine state. Perhaps security is also a reason.”
He said the Rohingya came from various villages in Rakhine state and from internal displacement camps where about 120,000 Muslims have lived since their homes were destroyed amid communal violence with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
“It has become impossible [for them] to live in their region, and this has driven them out,” Saw Naing said. “We don’t intend to limit the migration. We primarily look for those without ID cards to charge.”
The Rohingya are subject to systematic discrimination in Myanmar in the form of denials of full citizenship, restrictions on their movement, and refusals to grant them access to public education, quality health services, and employment opportunities.
A military-led crackdown on Rohingya communities in northern Rakhine state in 2017 left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 others from their torched villages and into Bangladesh. Many were subject to horrific torture and mass rapes.
An estimated 600,000 Rohingya still live in Myanmar. In recent years, thousands of them have fled the conflict-ridden region, paying human traffickers hundreds of dollars each to take them to Muslim-friendly countries in Southeast Asia where they will not face persecution.
OHCHR issues report
Also on Thursday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a report on the situation of rights concerning the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, which makes recommendations for addressing the root causes of violations.
Rights violations and abuses against minorities are “engrained in the history and fabric of society at large” in Myanmar, according to an advance unedited version of the report.
“In addition to the institutionalized persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine state, long-standing armed conflicts have continued to lead to serious violations and abuses of human rights of ethnic minorities in other states, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, forced labor, and sexual and gender-based violence, and extensive forced displacement,” the report said.
“This situation has gravely hampered the ability of minorities to enjoy other rights, including freedom of movement, health, education, and imposed significant limitations on livelihood opportunities, thereby perpetuating a cycle of marginalization and poverty,” it said.
The report noted that a U.N. fact-finding mission in 2018 found that serious violations against the Rohingya during the 2017 crackdown amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The mission also charged that Myanmar had acted with “genocidal intent” against the Rohingya, though the government denied the accusation, saying that the military had conducted a “clearance operation” in northern Rakhine in response to terrorist attacks by a Muslim militant group.
Myanmar faces legal action on genocide-related charges at the U.N’s International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and an Argentine court.
The OHCHR recommends an end to military impunity for ongoing rights violations and comprehensive state reforms that would remove the army’s power and subject it to oversight by civilian authorities.
It also calls for Myanmar to dismantle the current system of discriminatory laws and policies and to adopt measures promoting equality and rights for ethnic and religious minorities.
The OHCHR suggests a comprehensive reparation program to remedy the harm suffered by aggrieved groups and to signal the state’s commitment to change. The body recommends that Myanmar offer compensation and provisions for education, health, and housing as well as official apologies and commemoration initiatives.
London-based Amnesty International gave an oral statement Thursday to the U.N. Human Rights Council after the OHCHR presented its report.
“The High Commissioner’s report underscores once more the need to end military impunity and the importance of the full realization of the rights of ethnic, religious, and other minorities,” Amnesty said. “Such measures are essential to ensure that all people in Myanmar can live their lives in dignity and security, free from discrimination.”
“Unfortunately, Myanmar’s authorities, including the current administration, have often been among those fostering rather than challenging narratives of hate, intolerance, hostility, and violence,” Amnesty said.
Reported by Nandar Chan for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.