Identity cards are being issued to Burma’s Rohingya minority in the west of the country in a move likely aimed at securing votes prior to elections.
But the government’s decision to categorise the Rohingya as “Burmese Muslims”, and not Rohingya. has inflamed locals in Arakan state who claim it will only heighten racial tension.
“They are doing this to make sure that they get votes for 2010,” said a local in Arakan state. “It is rather thought provoking that they are giving the ‘Burmese Muslim’ [status] in this election as they had never thought of doing this in the past. This could cause racial problems in the future.”
He added that the issuance appeared “not in accordance with immigration rules and regulations” – Arakan citizens had never before been given identity cards.
A member of staff at the Arakan state immigration office however denied that the cards have been issued, but said that the office head had gone to the capital Naypyidaw for a meeting, although didn’t elaborate on what was being discussed.
Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, said that a Rohingya representative had also travelled to Naypyidaw in the past week to discuss the ID card issue.
She added that there had been “promises by ministers when they visited Arakan state last month that [the Rohingya] will soon get a full citizenship card”. Many already hold temporary cards.
“Because of the referendum the authorities are keen to give them temporary ID cards – the elections laws stipulate that temporary cardholders can vote,” she said.
“The majority of Rohingya in Rangoon have full citizenship and the government is choosing [Rohingya] businessmen with close ties to the ruling junta to go to Arakan state and give donations to the people,” she continued. “It seems that these people will stand as candidates for the government, in the [junta proxy Union Solidarity and Development Association] for example, in the elections.”
A native Arakan said that the practice also occurred during the rule of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), the main political party in Burma between 1945 and 1962, when authorities promised foreign residents national identity cards to secure their votes.
“Successive military governments tended to make profits from illegal residents or ‘guests’ – nationals, foreigners, Chinese and Indians during the elections,” he said.
The issuing of identity cards to the Rohingya came after UN rapportuer to Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said in his report to the UN that the Burmese government has been persecuting Muslims.
Up to 400,000 Rohingya are living in dire conditions across the border in Bangladesh, having fled persecution in Burma. Only 23,000 of these however have been granted refugee status by the UN, while the majority live in makeshift refugee camps.