By Aman Ullah

On 17 April 2020, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its press release, welcomes Burmese authorities dropping charges of illegal travel against over 200 Rohingya and releasing them from prison.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyze, and report on threats to religious freedom abroad.

In the press release, USCIRF Vice Chair Nadine Maenza stated that, “Amid the worsening crisis with COVID-19, releasing hundreds of wrongfully imprisoned Rohingya is an encouraging step by Burmese authorities,”. “This process must continue. Individuals held in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons face an increased threat from this disease. With thousands more Rohingya unjustly imprisoned, we strongly urge the Burmese government to release them all as a humanitarian gesture amid the country’s efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19.”

Since 2001, the government has required Rohingya to have passes in order to travel outside Rakhine State, which are difficult to obtain. These restrictions have resulted in thousands of Rohingya imprisoned on illegal travel charges, especially as many attempt to flee the ongoing Burmese military operations.

In Rakhine State, Muslims are like in a cage, they cannot travel outside. There are no human rights for the Muslims of Rakhine. The Rohingya are in a situation of severe, systemic and institutionalized oppression from birth to death. Their extreme vulnerability is a consequence of State policies and practices implemented over decades, steadily marginalizing the Rohingya and eroding their enjoyment of human rights. The process of “othering” the Rohingya and their discriminatory treatment started since long.

Thousands of Rohingya have tried to leave Myanmar in the last several years to escape institutionalized persecution, grinding poverty, and insecurity in Rakhine state. They pay human traffickers hundreds of dollars each to transport them to other Muslim-friendly nations in Southeast Asia where they hope to have a better life.

An estimated 25,000 Rohingya left Bangladesh and Myanmar on boats in 2015 trying to get to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Hundreds drowned when overloaded boats sank.

Nearly 1,500 Rohingya were detained in 2015, more than 500 were picked up in 2018, and roughly 250 have been apprehended so far in 2019, according to the list provided by the officer, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to give information to the media.

The figures did not include Rohingya who fled by land from two military-led crackdowns in northern Rakhine state in 2016 and 2017. During the first round of violence, about 90,000 Muslims left and headed across the border and into Bangladesh, while the second, more brutal clampdown forced more than 740,000 into Bangladesh.

In December 2019, the Myanmar Navy picked up more than 170 Rohingya in waters off southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region in the Andaman Sea as they attempted to leave Myanmar while traveling to a third country. Later they were sent to Sittwe on 8 January 2020.

On 14 Feb. 2020, 19 Rohingya, including four children, were arrested in Magway region’s Minhla township of Magway region. The children were taken to a youth training center in Mandalay, while the adults are now on trial for violating nationality statutes.

On 19 February 2020, Myanmar authorities arrested nearly 49 Rohingya Muslims in Yangon region as they attempted to flee the country for Malaysia. They were from Kyaukphyu, Sittwe, Minbya, and Buthidaung townships.

A group of nearly 70 Rohingya who had fled Rakhine state with the help of traffickers and headed to Malaysia were arrested in Yangon region’s Hlegu Township on Feb. 20-21. They are now on trial for violating Myanmar’s nationality statutes for traveling illegally and without documentation.

All the arrested Rohingya have been charged under Section 6(3) of Myanmar’s Immigration Act and face prison sentences of six months to two years if found guilty.

Discriminatory local orders and policies, requirements for movement permissions and security escorts, and the erection of physical barriers such as checkpoints, have served to impede the movement abilities of Rohingya communities and segregate them from broader society in Rakhine State, in many cases severely limiting their access to services as a result. Restrictions on movement can vary geographically and affect those living in villages in northern and central Rakhine State, internment camps in Sittwe, Kyauktaw, Kyaukphyu, Pauktaw and Myebon Townships, and in the Aung Mingalar quarter of Sittwe town. Those living in villages can generally travel to contiguous Rohingya or Muslim settlements within their village tracts but require a Village Departure Certificate (Tauk Kan Sa) to travel to other village tracts and Form 4s to travel beyond their township (depending on documentation status). Those living in isolated villages in central Rakhine State face perhaps the worst conditions, with extremely limited access to services or ability to travel.

Reflecting on the history of restrictions on freedom of movement in Rakhine State is necessary for understanding both the context in which current restrictions exist and their dimensions. Following the implementation of Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) by the Tatmadaw and the Immigration Department in 1978, which aimed at registering all citizens and aliens prior to a national census, more than 200,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh amidst allegations of widespread human rights violations. The Burmese Governmen’s claim that the exodus reflected the illegal status of those displaced, informed a review of the country’s citizenship laws, which led to the passage of the 1982 Citizenship Law. The arbitrary enactment of the Law excluded most Rohingya – as well as other unrecognized groups – from any of the three categories of citizenship. The beginning of the government’s citizenship scrutiny efforts in 1989 led many Rohingya who possessed NRCs to surrender them; however, they did not receive CSCs in exchange. Further episodes of violence by state security forces drove an estimated 250,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992.

In June 1997, the Rakhine State Immigration and National Registration Department issued an instruction restricting the movement of Rohingya on the basis of their ethnicity and citizenship status. The instruction required ‘foreigners’ and ‘Bengali races’ to obtain a ‘temporary travel permit’ known as ‘Form 4’ to travel between and within townships in Rakhine State. Despite their entitlement to automatic citizenship as recognized national races under the 1982 Citizenship Law, at that time Kaman Muslims were also required to travel with a Form 4. Penalties for noncompliance with the instruction under Section 188 of the Penal Code and Section 6(2)(3) of the 1949 Residents of Myanmar Registration Act are punishable by up to six months’ and up to two years’ imprisonment respectively. This instruction remains in place today.

Recent changes by the government have allowed for greater movement for holders of the NVC in the northern Rakhine State townships of Buthidaung and Maungdaw, with those Rohingya who hold NVCs reporting notable decreases in extortion at checkpoints and the number of permissions needed to travel within their own township or to their neighbouring township. However, NVC-holders in northern Rakhine State are still required to obtain Form 4s to travel to other townships or outside of Rakhine State.

More importantly, restrictions on movement have increased for the vast majority of Rohingya who do not possess an NVC or CSC. Movement abilities that were previously afforded to Rohingya, including the ability to apply for Form 4s or to go fishing, now require the card – which is deeply unpopular within the Rohingya community because it is perceived as a marker of foreignness. As the government has rampaged up efforts to enrol – and coerce – Rohingya into the card scheme.

Rohingya face an impossible choice between societal stigma for accepting the card and heightened vulnerability if they reject it. While the government claims that the card is a legitimate response to the need to provide legal identity to hundreds of thousands of undocumented people, the imposition of the NVC ignores the deep mistrust of the government felt by the Rohingya following successive stages of disenfranchisement in which their previous identity cards have been revoked. That the government routinely forces people to take the NVC against their will reinforces suspicions among Rohingya that the card should not be trusted.

The cost of movement itself is a major determining factor in whether Rohingya are able to move at all. While other communities may also face expensive transport costs and occasional solicitation from officials, the extent to which Rohingya must pay unofficial fees to brokers, government and security officials for legal documentation, movement permissions, security clearances, mandatory police escorts, and checkpoint crossings is unique to that community. Although these costs are most often borne by those without proper documentation and even those with permissions, citizenship or NVCs can be asked to pay. Those who can’t may be subject to physical and verbal abuse, as well as arrest and imprisonment. For an already vulnerable community facing limited livelihood opportunities and access to services, these costs serve to further impoverish those who do move and prevents movement altogether for those who cannot afford it, in some cases leading to otherwise preventable deaths.

The unofficial payments and bribes solicited from Rohingya attempting to travel, have fueled the growth of an illicit economy benefiting government officials and state security forces. For many of these officials, these informal payments may act as supplemental income that further incentivizes the perpetuation of restrictions. Movement restrictions have also distorted market economies, providing opportunities for members of other communities – and some Rohingya themselves – to exploit the Rohingya through lower-than-market prices for Rohingya goods and decreased wages for Rohingya workers. Dismantling the incentive structures that propel this illicit economy will be one of the greatest challenges facing the government in lifting movement restrictions.

Movement restrictions against the Rohingya are targeted and discriminatory. While all communities in Rakhine State suffer to some degree from limitations and even discriminatory restrictions on movement, the Rohingya face unique challenges that suggest that the movement restrictions imposed on them are not simply incidental, but part of a larger effort to control the population. Factors that point towards this determination include the historic confiscation of identity documents and the ongoing deprivation of citizenship documentation, the long-standing nature of movement restrictions targeted at Rohingya communities, the continued internment of Rohingya (as well as Kaman) in camps, persistent blocks on access to services, the failure to hold those abusing and violating human rights to account, and the targeted nature of movement costs. These factors must be understood within the broader context of human rights violations faced by the community, including the violent ‘clearance operations’ of 2016 and 2017, controls on birth and marriage, and limits on the formation of civil society organizations (CSOs).

Under international law, all people have the right to freedom of movement, regardless of citizenship status. In Rakhine State, however, freedom of movement has historically been linked to citizenship; holding a citizenship card is the most significant factor in determining whether communities and individuals can move freely. This link is problematic because it is built on a history of identity card confiscation and is being used in the ongoing deprivation of citizenship of the Rohingya community. In effect, the government has systematically denied an entire community access to documentation and then barred them from moving freely because they lack documentation.

The freedom of movement underpins the ability of individuals and communities to live free and dignified lives, and is instrumental for the enjoyment of other rights, including access to healthcare, education and livelihoods. In Rakhine State, restrictions on freedom of movement contribute to the marginalization and exclusion of all communities but are central to the continued persecution of the Rohingya population.

Thus, releasing about 200 is not sufficient. The Government of Myanmar must immediately release to all the Rohingya who were unjustly or wrongfully arrested and imprisoned as a humanitarian gesture amid the country’s efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19. Moreover, the government should immediately need to lift the restriction of movement to all the peoples of Rakhine in general and the Rohingyas in particular.