The Immigration Minister was chosen to answer a question in parliament brought by U Zarad Rawmam aka U Htay Win of Arakan constituency seven, in which he enquired about why “indigenous Rakhine Muslims” still had their freedom of movement curtailed by having to apply to the military’s border force, Nasaka, to move between towns. Failing to do so can result in jail time as a Muslim National League for Democracy (NLD) member found out near Mandalay.
Htay Win was quoted by the New Light of Myanmar saying that; “indigenous Myanmar Muslim voters in Maungtaw District of Rakhine State cannot travel freely; to travel other Regions or States for economic, education, health and social reasons, they have to take out Application Form (4) of Immigration Department under the directive of Na-Sa-Ka, forcing them to face many difficulties in socio-economic life; and how the state will help address this issue.”
The response came from the immigration minister, U Khin Yi, a former police chief. The key part of his response reaffirmed the government’s commitment to racial profiling, stating that;
“Those who are labeled “Myanmar Muslims” were assumed to be Bengalis in Maungtaw of Rakhine [Arakan] State;” and; “Bengalis in Maungtaw have shared common religion, culture, appearance and language with their counterparts [in Bangladesh].”
Incidentally other ethnic groups in Burma share “appearance” and cultural traits with those over international boundaries in nations such as Thailand or China.
David Matheison, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) responded that it was symptomatic of “systemic racism” on the part of the Burmese government.
Khin Yi meanwhile claimed in parliament that migrants from Bangladesh were “penetrating deep into the country,” international NGOs and the UNHCR have confirmed that there is a “protracted emergency” in Bangladesh as a result of refugees from Burma’s northern Arakan state where Maungdaw or Maungtaw is located.
Matheison confirmed that claims of Bangladeshi migration to Burma were a “massive mistruth,” adding that; “its going the other way.”
Khin Yi however stated that; “As there was mass migration 180,000 were given refuge after being scrutinised by Nagarmin Operation and Hintha Plan in 1978.”
Nagarmin, translates as dragon, and was by most accounts an appropriate description for it was in all intents and purposes a racial purge, where by some 200,000 Burmese Muslims or Rohingya were sent fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh by heavily armed members of the Burmese military.
Khin Yi none the less stated that; “the Application Form (4) is used in need of State’s security and nationalism as the foreign Bengalis illegally migrated into Maungtaw of Rakhine State.”
Muslims have lived in the Arakan region since at least the 9th century BCE whilst today Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh is home to some 200,000 Burmese Muslim refugees as well as significant numbers of Arakanese Buddhist refugees.
However systemic persecution on the basis of race has been experienced not just in border areas. Such laws or policies are regularly used against Muslim Burmese.
A Muslim member of National League for Democracy (NLD) in Mandalay’s Tatkon township was recently sentenced to one and half years in prison for trying to travel to a nearby town to celebrate Martyr’s Day.
Pho Htaung (also known as) Hla Myint was sentenced under the immigration act last Friday, said Meikhtila township NLD member Myint Myint Aye.
“He was prosecuted by Tatkon township’s Immigration Chief U Nyi Nyi for failing to inform the Immigration Office when he travelled outside of his town, a regulation for those who carry non-citizen ID cards. Now he has been sentenced to a year and half in prison,” said Myint Myint Aye.
Pho Htaung was previously arrested in March 2010 for travelling to Mandalay [town] to attend an NLD meeting there and sentenced to a year and half prison term. He was released from Sagaing Division’s Katha Prison after serving 13 months. His recent arrest comes just three months after he was released from his previous sentence.
The Muslim population of Northern Arakan state are known as Rohingya people. They were specifically targeted by the military party, the Union Solidarity Party (USDP) in last year’s controversial elections, to garner votes. Matheison states that they were given temporary ID cards to allow them to vote.
Despite being able to vote for the USDP they are now denied what Matheison describes as a “basic human freedom”, the freedom of movement.
As a result groups such as Refugees International describe the ethnic group as; “one of the most persecuted in the world”.
This discrimination was characterised by the Burmese consul general to Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung who in 2009 described the ethnic group as “ugly as ogres” in the press.
Burma is not signatory to the UN’s convention on elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, unlike all of its neighbours.