Myanmar Political Parties Oppose Easing Travel Restrictions on Rohingya

Myanmar’s main opposition political party and members of some minor parties say they oppose the government’s decision to grant freedom of travel to Rohingya Muslims who possess National Verification Cards (NVCs).

Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) members told the media on Tuesday at party headquarters in Yangon that they will send a letter to President Myint Win expressing their disagreement with the decision which Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s social welfare minister, announced last week.

He said that Rohingya who have lived in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps since fleeing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are free to travel if they accept the NVC and fill out an associated immigration form.

Win Myat Aye also said that anyone who holds the card “can apply for citizenship and can become a citizen within five months.”

Besides denying the Rohingya citizenship, Myanmar also prevents them from traveling freely outside camps without permission and denies them access to education, employment, and health care.

A military crackdown on Rohingya in the northern part of Rakhine state that began in late August following deadly attacks by a Muslim militant group left thousands dead and drove nearly 700,000 across the border to Bangladesh, where they live in squalor in sprawling refugee camps.

Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to repatriate those who want to voluntarily return to Rakhine as long as they can prove prior residency.

Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, with whom the Muslims clashed in communal violence in 2012, fear that lifting the travel restrictions could invite further attacks by Rohingya militants.

“If NVC holders can travel freely, it will be very dangerous for our country,” said USDP spokesperson Nanda Hla Myint.

“What we want to say today is that we will do something decisively together with other parties that have the same attitude as ours and are against allowing NVC cardholders to travel freely if authorities do permit such travel,” he said.

Nanda Hla Myint also said he will submit a proposal about the NVC issue at the national parliament.

Rohingya refugees who have applied to return to Myanmar from camps in neighboring Bangladesh and IDPs in Myanmar see the NVCs as unnecessary and instead have demanded full citizenship because they claim their forefathers were Myanmar nationals.

The government says the Rohingya, an ethnicity not officially recognized in Myanmar, must undergo a verification process in line with the 1982 Citizenship Law and accept NVCs before they can become citizens.

Other parties weigh in

The USDP is not the only political party whose members oppose the granting of travel rights to Rohingya with NVCs.

Han Shwe vice chairman of the National Unity Party, pointed out that Myanmar’s 2008 constitution says that only those who are citizens can have full citizens’ rights, including the right to free movement around the country.

“The constitution doesn’t allow anybody who holds an NVC to travel freely around the country,” he said.

“The Rakhine problem occurred because of ARSA,” he said, referring to the Muslim militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army that claimed responsibility for attacks on police outposts on Aug. 25 that sparked the crackdown by the military.

“That’s why this issue should be handled very carefully,” he said.

Khin Maung Swe, chairman of National Democratic Force (NDF) party, took the NLD to task for allowing free travel for NVC holders.

“It shouldn’t allow NVC holders to travel freely,” he said. If so, they will be like citizens, but they are not.”

Authorities must amend the country’s Immigration Act to legally allow NVC holders to travel freely, he said, adding that he wasn’t aware that the NLD made the decision to alleviate some international pressure on Myanmar.

“It is not even a good sign; it is dangerous,” he said. “The NDF doesn’t like it.”

Thein Nyunt, chairman of the New National Democracy Party, said the right to move around freely should not apply to NVC holders.

“They are not yet citizens,” he said. “Giving citizens’ rights to non-citizens is something the government shouldn’t do. Our party doesn’t agree with it because it is very dangerous for national security.”

Tun Aung Kyaw, Secretary of the Arakan Nations Party, which represents the interests of the ethnic Rakhine people in Rakhine state, urged the government to reconsider its decision.

“Bengalis who really lived in Rakhine state can speak Burmese or the Rakhine language,” he said, using a disparaging term for the Rohingya who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

“If authorities give them NVCs and allow them to travel freely, it’s OK,” he said. “But there are a lot of people who have entered Rakhine illegally, and if they are given NVCs and allowed to travel freely, it will be very dangerous. Please think about it very carefully.”

NLD’s response

An NLD spokesman defended the government’s decision to allow cardholders to travel freely and stressed that officials will issue them only to those who are eligible to apply for them under the Citizenship Law.

“The constitution says that every citizen must have equal rights,” said NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt. “If we don’t accept this point, it is like we are violating the constitution.”

He said the NLD expected there to be objections to the decision to allow NVC holders in turmoil-rocked Rakhine state to travel freely because “people have had this wrong way of thinking for generations.”

The government made the decision to let Rohingya with cards travel in accordance with the law and in the interest of the people, he said.

Myanmar has come under heavy fire from the international community for its treatment of the Rohingya, especially during the brutal military crackdown when soldiers killed and raped Rohingya civilians and burned their villages.

The United Nations and United States have said that the violence amounted to ethnic cleansing, though the government and army have denied that soldiers committed widespread atrocities.

Myo Nyunt blamed western media for the buildup of pressure on Myanmar by the international community over the Rohingya crisis.

“What I think is that the international pressure on Myanmar is in response to western media’s influence on the international community, including U.N. agencies,” he said.

“I would expect that if the international media knew the news and information from both sides openly, we would have an impartial reaction from the international community to our country,” he said.

U.N. agencies and rights groups have called for assurances that the Rohingya who return to Rakhine state from Bangladesh will be safe from further attacks and given the same opportunities as citizens.

“We always thoroughly consider the international community’s suggestions, but we mainly have to think about the domestic situation,” said Myo Nyunt. “Because this problem has occurred in Myanmar for generations, the most important thing we need is to see how people in Myanmar respond to this problem.”

“We will work to solve this problem based on people’s responses and according to the law, bylaws, and regulations in Myanmar,” he said.

Reported by Thant Zin Oo, Thinn Thiri, and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.