Myanmar Wants to Track Rohingya, Not Help Them

The U.N. is wrong to support national ID cards that could backfire on the persecuted minority.

By Azeem Ibrahim, a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC.
Rohingya refugee children take a ride on the back of a truck loaded with drinks during a monsoon rainfall at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on July 23, 2019.
Rohingya refugee children take a ride on the back of a truck loaded with drinks during a monsoon rainfall at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on July 23, 2019. Munir Uz Zamin/AFP/Getty Images

Papers matter for refugees. They get you across borders, they prove your claims if there’s ever a chance to return home, and they record the lost and the murdered. Families preserve the deeds for the homes they once owned, passing them down through generations in foreign lands.

But documents are a double-edged sword. Documents recording births, attesting identity, and confirming residency have long been a key battleground for the Myanmar state in its protracted genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the western state of Rakhine. Throughout the decades since independence, subsequent military governments forced upon the Rohingya documents that attested residency—without confirming citizenship. These progressively eroded more and more of their rights in the country of their birth—most notably, the infamous white cards, which effectively disenfranchised the Rohingya while providing the Myanmar authorities useful population statistics that could be used in their so-called clearing operations over the past two years.

This isn’t new. In Europe, experience with the Holocaust speaks to the power that documents can have over individual lives. On the one hand, they are essential for victims to claim their due. On the other, they are very useful tools for discrimination and the organization of state violence against targeted groups. Knowing where people live and in what numbers can be used to bring them clean water—or to round them up for murder.

Myanmar’s proposed National Verification Cards for the Rohingya have recently attracted the support of the United Nations’ special envoy of the secretary-general on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, who reportedly approved the suggestion by the Rakhine State Minister that this form of documentation would be a necessary first step on the path toward full citizenship for the Rohingya. Schraner Burgener is making an error of judgement with potentially tragic consequences.

What the Rohingya need from the Myanmar state is very simple: the rights they have been systematically denied and that they are entitled to by international law, as well as their common-sense recognition as full and equal members of the political community of the state of their birth and of their forebears.

Since Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya have been excluded from the country’s list of indigenous ethnic groups. The rationale for this move was that the Rohingya were not considered a natural, indigenous ethnic group in their native Rakhine state, but rather that they were imported to the region under British imperial administration in the 1800s. That is both false and irrelevant. If you do not “naturally” belong where you are born—and in the case of the Rohingya, often where their grandparents and great-grandparents were born—then where on earth do you belong? This is also why international law makes it illegal for any state to deny citizenship to any individual born on their territory if doing so would render that individual stateless. Yet that is exactly what the Myanmar state has done to about 2 million individuals, based on a false vision of ethnonationalist history.

The Rohingya’s only demand is that Myanmar meets its obligation under international law and recognizes them as full citizens, equal in status before the law to any others born in the same country. The U.N. supports that claim. But while the card might seem like a step toward that, it is anything but.

Schraner Burgener probably thinks she is being pragmatic and helping along the process of normalizing the status of the Rohingya with the state of their birth. The Rohingya having at least some paperwork confirming their identity and status as refugees from Myanmar in the interim is better than having no paperwork at all, right? (The few documents that Rohingya fleeing the government persecution still had have mostly been destroyed with the burning villages.)

The problem is that the envoy is assuming that the Myanmar authorities are making this supposedly interim offer in good faith. She is assuming this in the face of overwhelming evidence: Persecution of the few Rohingya who remain in Myanmar is ongoing even as you are reading this. And, crucially, there has been no shift in attitudes toward the Rohingya or the crisis by anyone in the Myanmar state, whether in its military branch or on its civilian side. Conversely, the very same authorities have a long history of using the documentation of individuals to target, exclude, and persecute defined groups.

Any reasonable observer should conclude that the interim status provided by the proposed National Verification Cards is a trap in the exact same way in which the white cards issued by the military juntas of the past were a trap. They are not meant to grant an interim status, and they are will not get anyone any closer to full citizenship. Rather, they are a useful tool of population accounting, which can be used for further targeting of Rohingya individuals for exclusion and arbitrary state force.

But the clincher is that there is no sense in which any such supposedly interim step is necessary in practice. If Myanmar had any intention of normalizing the status of the Rohingya as full citizens of the state, the very same process through which they would decide who is entitled to a National Verification Card could be used to grant full citizenship. Or are the Myanmar authorities suggesting that there are brown, Muslim Bangladeshi nationals queuing up in refugee camps to fraudulently claim citizenship in a Buddhist Burmese ethnic and religious supremacist state, so that they can claim land in an area poorer than Bangladesh and devastated by war in northern Rakhine state?

Given the dangers of putting this kind of information in the hands of a genocidal state, and the ease of offering real citizenship, the Rohingya and their advocates should accept nothing less than full citizenship and equal protection under the law. If the Myanmar authorities wish to carry out some kind of due process of verification, then so be it, but they must do so in the camps in Bangladesh where the Rohingya are protected and where any such process can happen in the full view of the international community. For their part, the Rohingya ask just that, and little more.

In the final analysis, everyone (except for the perpetrators of the genocide in Myanmar, of course) wants the Rohingya to be able to return home. But it would be a dereliction of duty for any U.N. agency or official to encourage any Rohingya individual to return to Myanmar until such time that the Myanmar authorities fully recognize their moral and legal rights, and until such time as the international community and the U.N. itself can be satisfied that those rights will be protected upon return.

The proposed National Verification Cards are not a step in the right direction. They are a well-trodden path to further targeting and abuse in the future. U.N. officials must learn from history and reject that future for the Rohingya.

Azeem Ibrahim is a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
 Twitter: @azeemibrahim