Rohingya refugee children hold placards as they gather at the Kutupalong Refugee Camp to mark the fifth anniversary of their fleeing from neighbouring Myanmar to escape a military crackdown in 2017, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on 25 August, 2022

Zaw Win’s grandparents had the same identify card as everyone else in Myanmar, but a generation later his parents were given a separate ID for minority Rohingyas. Today, Zaw Win is classed as an illegal immigrant in the land of his birth.

For more than three decades, Myanmar’s ruling powers have weaponised the country’s identity card system in a wider campaign of persecution, exclusion and surveillance targeting the Muslim ethnic community, human rights groups say.

Zaw Win, 37, a rights activist who fled Myanmar in 2014 in fear for his safety, traces the withdrawal of his citizenship back through his family members’ diminishing identity status.

“My grandparents had full citizenship - they had the same type of ID card that Daw Suu Kyi had,” Zaw Win said, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi, the deposed political leader who was jailed after a military coup early last year.

“My parents had a green card that only the Rohingya had, and I got a piece of paper that categorised me as Muslim and my race as Bengali, an illegal immigrant. So over the years, they stripped us of our citizenship and tried to erase us,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When Zaw Win left Myanmar eight years ago, he had a temporary registration card issued to Rohingyas, but a year later that form of ID was also cancelled by the government.

From then on, Rohingyas were ordered to get National Verification Cards (NVCs) that identified them as non-citizens. Around the same time, officials also began collecting their biometric data such as fingerprints.

Over the next two years, human rights groups reported coercion and force by government officials and security forces issuing NVCs, alongside increasing bouts of violence including rape and mass killings that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee Myanmar in August 2017 and seek refuge in Bangladesh.

The ID system singled out Rohingyas for discrimination and persecution, and held in place policies of segregation and persecution
Natalie Brinham, a researcher at the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion

The enforced ID system played a crucial role in the persecution of the Rohingya, said Kyaw Win, director of the London-based Burma Human Rights Network.

“The NVC, while promoted as a stepping stone to citizenship, forced Rohingya into a lower status that denied their ethnicity, excluded them from society, denied them rights and erased their history,” he said.

Armed Police Battalion (APBn) personnel stand guard along a road at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhiya on 13 August, 2022

“It was designed to keep Rohingya in a state of non-citizenship.”

A representative of Myanmar’s military government did not respond to a request for comment.

Suu Kyi’s civilian government, which had earlier pushed the NVC, had said they were needed for security purposes, and that holders had the opportunity to apply for citizenship.

Targeted Populations

More than 1 billion people globally have no way of proving their identity, according to the World Bank.

At the same time, in the push towards a U.N. goal of a “legal identity for all” by 2030, and for digital ID systems aimed at better governance, governments are excluding marginalised groups and ethnic minorities from citizenship registrars, a U.N. expert has warned.

In Myanmar, authorities have repeatedly confiscated and cancelled ID documents and other evidence of citizenship of Rohingya since the 1970s, while also maintaining extensive records for surveillance purposes, rights groups say.

The Citizenship Law of 1982, which requires individuals to prove that their ancestors lived in Myanmar before 1823, does not recognise Rohingya as one of the Buddhist-majority nation’s ethnic groups or list their language as a national language.

After reports that aid agencies were sharing the database with Bangladesh authorities who passed the data to the Myanmar government, the Rohingya protested the data collection

Under it, Rohingyas’ movements and access to livelihoods, education and healthcare were curtailed, and they needed permits to cross state and township boundaries, and for overnight stays.

“Everywhere you went, there were checkpoints. You could even be stopped on the street and asked for your ID,” said Zaw Win, who often travelled between Maungdaw town in the western state of Rakhine and neighbouring Buthidaung, about 16 miles (26 km) away.

“Anyone could, at a glance, see that the person was Rohingya from the ID card,” he added.

While Myanmar authorities have said the NVC was a step towards citizenship under the 1982 law, the back of the card states that the holder needs to apply for citizenship. Rohingya cannot identify as “Rohingya” in the application, only as “Bengali” or another foreign national identity.

“The ID system singled out Rohingyas for discrimination and persecution, and held in place policies of segregation and persecution,” said Natalie Brinham, a researcher at the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, a nonprofit.

“At the same time, the IDs locked in systems of state surveillance and extortion,” she said.

Ahead of the military-led attacks in 2016 and 2017, there was an uptick in efforts to force Rohingya to get NVCs, and the brutal crackdown that began on 25 August, 2017, was “a response to Rohingya villagers collectively refusing to accept NVCs”, Fortify Rights, an advocacy group, said in a report this year.

Smoke is seen on the Myanmar border as Rohingya refugees walk on the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal, in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh on 11 September 2017
Reuters file photo

“Identification documents make it bureaucratically easier to identify, persecute, and kill targeted populations on a widespread, systematic, and massive scale,” it said.

The United Nations has said the 2017 military crackdown was carried out with “genocidal intent” for “ethnic cleansing”, and Myanmar is facing charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Rohingya Database

As the number of people fleeing war, poverty, persecution and environmental disaster reaches record levels worldwide, states have turned to digital technologies and so-called smart IDs to monitor the flow of people and their access to services.

Five years since the 2017 crackdown, more than 1 million Rohingya live in squalid camps in southern Bangladesh comprising the world’s largest refugee settlement, with little prospect of returning to Myanmar.

At the camps, residents generally have an ID card issued by the World Food Programme for their rations, and a smart card from the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) that contains their biometrics including fingerprint, iris scan and a photograph.

After reports that aid agencies were sharing the database with Bangladesh authorities who passed the data to the Myanmar government, the Rohingya protested the data collection.

“The smart card is very important for us - it’s our ID card. We cannot move without it, cannot work, cannot get healthcare,” said Showkutara, 21, who fled Rakhine with some members of her family in Oct. 2017, and lives in a camp at Cox’s Bazar.

“We were very sad and also scared that our data was shared with the Myanmar government because we don’t know how they will use it,” said Showkutara, who teaches English and Burmese in the camp.

Rohingya children are seen at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, 7 March 2019.

In collecting Rohingyas’ data, the UNHCR did not conduct a full data impact assessment, and in some cases failed to obtain their informed consent to share their data with Myanmar, Human Rights Watch said last year.

In response, UNHCR said that “specific measures were taken to mitigate potential risks” in sharing data, and that refugees were “expressly asked whether they gave their consent to have their data shared” with the two governments.

Concerns around the collection of vast amounts of data on migrants and refugees by aid agencies and host governments have grown in recent years because of the potential for misuse.

“Digital ID systems can help with the smooth delivery of aid and services,” said Brinham.

“But in situations where forced repatriation is a risk or where there are significant security risks, refugees are often rightly concerned about data being passed or perhaps leaked to authorities in the country they have fled,” she added.

In Myanmar, Showkutara said her remaining family members in Rakhine were being forced by the junta to get the NVC, which the United Nations has said “still does not serve as a predictable or accessible pathway to citizenship, nor has it increased access to rights”.

A military spokesman has denied reports that anyone was being forced to accept the ID cards at gunpoint or with torture.

For Showkutara, the choice is stark: remain in a foreign nation as a refugee, or return to her homeland as a foreigner.

“I want to go back to Myanmar, but we will be forced to take NVC,” she said.

“NVC is not a citizen ID card. I cannot go back without citizenship.”