Muslims in five principal townships in western Burma have been granted permission by the immigration department to travel freely, providing they carry ID cards.
The decision comes nine months after the elections last year and campaign pledges by the eventual winner, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), that it would increase mobility for Burma’s long-persecuted Muslim minority.
A man in Arakan state’s Sandoway said that the decision may be related to letter sent to the government by residents of the town in which they complained that the civil rights ascribed in the 2008 constitution, which was adopted when the new government came to power in March, were not being recognised.
Until recently Muslims in Arakan state were required to get permission from their local authorities before travelling outside of designated regions, regardless of whether they had ID or an alien residency permit.
But in April this year, authorities stopped granting permission, meaning that large communities were banned from moving around outside of their townships.
“We are happy about this,” the Sandoway man said of the latest development. “We have been struggling with health, money, social and education issues for about 20 years.
“We are happy that the government, who now sympathises with our woes, is recognising us as Burmese civilians and protecting our rights. It is important for us to be responsible and good citizens so we won’t lose these rights again.”
Muslims have long been persecuted by the Buddhist government in Burma; the ethnic Rohingya minority in particular is denied any sort of legal status and hundreds of thousands have fled to Bangladesh.
The government claims that four percent of Burmese are practising Muslims, but the US state department, which has labelled Burma one of the world’s most religiously intolerant states, claims the figure could be considerably higher.
Following a report in early 2010 by UN Special Rapportuer to Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana that claimed the Burmese government had been persecuting Muslims, the then-ruling junta began issuing identity cards to the Rohingya.
Various rights groups have warned that the Burmese government is attempting to rid the country of Muslims by making their lives in Burma unbearable; up to 400,000 Rohingya are living as refugees in Bangladesh, which has also been reluctant to grant them any sort of registration.