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Internal government documents reveal ongoing campaign

(COX’S BAZAR and YANGON, January 16, 2020)—The Government of Myanmar should take steps to urgently restore full citizenship rights to Rohingya, said Fortify Rights today. New evidence collected by Fortify Rights, including eyewitness testimony and internal government documents, confirms that Myanmar authorities are continuing to force and coerce Rohingya to accept National Verification Cards (NVCs), which effectively identify Rohingya as foreigners and strip them of access to full citizenship rights. 

“The NVC is widely known as an abusive tool, and the government should scrap it without delay,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “This new evidence implicates government officials in ongoing efforts to erase Rohingya identity and deny them full citizenship.”

Fortify Rights documented five recent cases of Myanmar authorities in Rakhine State forcing or coercing Rohingya to accept the NVC.The organization also obtained an internal government document informing state-, district-, and local-level officials that a team of officials would be deployed to issue NVCs to Rohingya in internment camps in Sittwe Township. The document, dated December 7, 2019, is signed by the head of the Sittwe Township Department of Immigration and Population, informing the administrator of Thet Kay Pyin that an “immigration mobile team” would be deployed to Thet Kay Pyin internment camp. The document states the team would be tasked with issuing NVCs to “Bengali people”—a term often used by Myanmar officials to refer to Rohingya, implying that they are from Bangladesh and their ethnic Rohingya identity does not exist. The township official copied state- and district-level officers of the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population on the letter.

A 55-year-old Rohingya father of eight, who was a farmer and landowner in Rakhine State before he fled Myanmar to escape military- led attacks in 2017. ©Saiful Huq Omi, Counter Foto, Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh, August 2019.
A 55-year-old Rohingya father of eight, who was a farmer and landowner in Rakhine State before he fled Myanmar to escape military- led attacks in 2017. ©Saiful Huq Omi, Counter Foto, Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh, August 2019.

A 31-year old Rohingya man in Thet Kay Pyin internment camp told Fortify Rights how state security officers forced him to accept an NVC on December 10, just three days after the document was issued. He said:

On December 10, the immigration and BGP [Border Guard Police] came to the [Thet Kay Pyin] camp . . . There were about 40 BGP and immigration officers . . . I signed on the [NVC application] form. I can’t read Burmese, so I don’t know what it said. The immigration officers filled out the whole form for me.

“I didn’t get to fill out the form [at the immigration office],” another Rohingya, 40, told Fortify Rights on December 18. “The immigration officer filled [the NVC form] out for me. I could see I was labeled as a ‘Bengali’ on the application . . . Taking the NVC was the only option if I wanted to work and travel freely.”

“I was forced to take the NVC,” another 27-year-old Rohingya resident in Rakhine State told Fortify Rights in November. “It’s blue color . . . I didn’t have to write any forms.”

The government of Myanmar continues to confine more than 125,000 Rohingya to more than 20 internment camps in five townships of Rakhine State. During violent attacks in 2012, extremists and state security forces forcibly displaced most of the Rohingya now confined to the camps.

Fortify Rights also obtained a copy of the “National Strategy on Resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Closure of IDP Camps,” adopted by the Union-level Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement on November 20. The document instructs authorities to facilitate “citizenship verification in camps slated for closure.” In practice, “citizenship verification” in Rakhine State is implemented through the NVC process.

A Rohingya refugee man, 33, holds an NVC. Imprisoned in 2014 and forced to take the NVC upon his release, authorities beat and tortured him multiple times in detention. Upon his release he fled to Cox's Bazar District, Bangladesh. ©Fortify Rights, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 2019
A Rohingya refugee man, 33, holds an NVC. Imprisoned in 2014 and forced to take the NVC upon his release, authorities beat and tortured him multiple times in detention. Upon his release he fled to Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh. ©Fortify Rights, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 2019

Moreover, while the vast majority of more than one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh refuse to return to Myanmar until the government restores their rights and ensures protections, a small number of Rohingya have returned to Rakhine State informally and voluntarily. Authorities forced Rohingya who have returned to accept NVCs.
 
For instance, in November, a Rohingya man explained to Fortify Rights that he returned to Myanmar from Bangladesh informally on October 11, 2019. Upon arriving in Myanmar, authorities brought him and other Rohingya to a reception center. He told Fortify Rights:

We were taken to Nga Ku Ya [reception center]. They took group pictures of us in the reception center. They took our fingerprints and signatures and showed a sample picture of the NVC there in Nga Ku Ya . . . Every one of us was issued the NVC.

In a similar case documented by Fortify Rights, a Rohingya man, 35, and his family returned to Myanmar from Bangladesh informally last year. He told Fortify Rights how Myanmar authorities brought him and his family to a reception center:

First, they checked our belongings. After they verified us through the family list and checked that we were not a list of members of an extremist group, they gave us the NVC. There is no value in the NVC. Here, in Rakhine State, it’s very difficult. I can’t travel or work. The government is restricting us all the time.

Two Rohingya told Fortify Rights that they applied for Myanmar citizenship with newly issued NVCs and that the authorities denied their applications. For example, a 35-year old Rohingya resident of Rakhine State said: “We were called to the township immigration office. I applied for citizenship with the NVC. However, the immigration authorities informed me that my family and I are not entitled to citizenship even when my parents had documents.”

Radio Free Asia reported similar cases of authorities continuing to deny Rohingya access to citizenship despite receiving newly issued NVCs.

Most Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh refuse to return to Myanmar so long as the government continues to force Rohingya to accept NVCs.

“With the NVC, we will not return to Myanmar,” said a 24-year-old Rohingya refugee woman originally from Buthidaung Township. “No Rohingya wants to accept the NVC by their own will.”

From December 18 to 19, a Myanmar delegation visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, where they attempted to persuade Rohingya to accept NVCs.

“The Myanmar officials asked us to accept NVCs,” an 18-year-old Rohingya told Fortify Rights following the meeting, which he attended.

Following the first day of the visit, Director General of the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs Chan Aye told reporters, “We explained them [sic] issues related to citizenship and the NVC.”

Mohib Ullah, chair of the Rohingya-led civil society organization Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, told Fortify Rights the day after the second day of meetings with the Myanmar delegation, on December 20:

[The Myanmar delegation] are lying again and again. They say that the NVC is for those who have no documents, but we still have many documents of Myanmar . . . [The Myanmar delegation] said nothing new. For me, they came to visit the refugee camps just for show to try and calm down the international pressure and the allegations at the ICJ [International Court of Justice].

N.M., 75, shows his original White Card receipt. The Myanmar government issued the receipts to Rohingya after revoking their White Cards in March 2015. The government began issuing the White Cards, also known as "Temporary Registration Cards" to Rohingya in 1995. Neither  the White Card nor the receipt confer any rights to Rohingya. ©Saiful Huq Omi, Counter Foto, Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh, August 2019
N.M., 75, shows his original White Card receipt. The Myanmar government issued the receipts to Rohingya after revoking their White Cards in March 2015. The government began issuing the White Cards, also known as “Temporary Registration Cards” to Rohingya in 1995. Neither  the White Card nor the receipt confer any rights to Rohingya. ©Saiful Huq Omi, Counter Foto, Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh, August 2019

In November, The Gambia opened a case at the ICJ against Myanmar for failing to prevent or punish genocide against Rohingya Muslims. On January 23, the ICJ will read its decision with regard to The Gambia’s request for provisional measures of protection for Rohingya in Myanmar. Provisional measures are binding orders from the court to the parties in the case to prevent further violation of the rights in dispute while the case is pending.
 
On December 10, in its request for provisional measures, The Gambia’s legal team presented evidence before the ICJ regarding ongoing atrocities against the Rohingya.
 
“A further step Myanmar is taking against the Rohingya as a group,” said attorney Tafadzwa Pasipanodya on behalf of The Gambia, “is the intensified effort to force them to accept ‘national verification cards’ that explicitly recognize cardholders as non-citizens and brand them as ‘Bengali.’”
 
In September, Fortify Rights published a 102-page report“Tools of Genocide,” revealing how Myanmar authorities forced and coerced Rohingya to accept NVCs in a systematic campaign to erase Rohingya identity and deny Rohingya citizenship.
 
Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit Myanmar from January 17 to 18. The Government of China previously urged the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to fast track the returns of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to northern Rakhine State, despite objections by Rohingya, the United Nations, human rights groups, and others due to protection concerns. 

“China is playing a non-neutral role in the Rohingya crisis and, unfortunately, that role is devoid of any concern for human rights, justice, and accountability,” said Matthew Smith. “China’s political protection for Myanmar has limits, and those limits will be on display as various international accountability mechanisms gain steam.”

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